When bombs go off, Iraqi glaziers follow

Window repairmen are among the unsung heroes of Baghdad - helping restore normalcy in the face of daily violence.

On a brisk morning late last fall, a pair of mortars landed in the date palm grove behind Ali Sayed's comfortable two-story home, followed by the all too familiar sound of glass shattering.

It was the fifth time that nearby explosions had ripped through the large panes of glass that look out onto the gardenias and orange trees thriving in Mr. Sayed's front garden.

But, thanks to his trusty glazier, it's a minor inconvenience.

"The windows break, I call up Laith, and I say, 'This time I'll need a meter and a half each for the dining room and living room, and four three- quarter meter panes for the upstairs bedrooms,' " says Sayed, a barrel-chested Iraqi, standing well over six feet tall. "And before my scared 2-year-old has stopped crying, the windows are fixed."

Laith is Laith Antwan who has been cutting glass for 24 years. Since car bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and mortars are part of the daily life here, Mr. Antwan and his fellow glaziers have become unsung heroes - reconstruction's trauma surgeons working 20-hour days after large bombings.

"We are the first people who know when an explosion happens. We know before all the satellite channels," says Antwan, taking a break from work in his open-fronted glass shop on an unpaved side street in Baghdad's wealthy Karada district. Home to many of the capital's elite, Karada is a favorite target for insurgents.

"After 15 minutes you will see us at the bomb site, tape measures in hands, measuring the broken windows," he adds. "Especially now, in the winter, the people can't sleep in the cold, so they need their windows fixed immediately."

If the city's windows are any indication, Iraqis have a remarkable ability to pick up and carry on in the face of adversity. Within hours of a car bomb, the surrounding store front windows are invariably as good as new.

"They keep getting quicker and quicker," says Sayed, who, having had five sets of new windows in two years, is in a position to judge.

Charting the work of the city's glaziers speaks volumes to the tumult pounding this city.

In each of the dozen or so workshops along this two-block stretch on a weekday in January, busy craftsmen in protective eyewear hunch over humming machines, cutting glass and welding frames. The previous week there had been 433 insurgent attacks in Iraq, according to US Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, all capable of wreaking havoc on a pane of glass.

The workload is so much at times that these shops have to farm the work out elsewhere, to glaziers in more tranquil neighborhoods.

Before the war, Antwan was scraping by on less than $100 a month, enough to pay rent on his shop and apartment, and provide food for his family. Throughout the 1990s, the absence of car bombs aside, the constant threat of US airstrikes meant that no one was building and there was little demand for new windows.

"We were getting attacked every few months by the Americans and nobody would build because he was afraid an American missile would destroy it," says Antwan. Things started to change after the war began in 2003. "The war broke every window in the city."

For about a year, until mid-2004, Iraqi glaziers benefited from the rebuilding boom, as homeowners and businessmen sought a fresh start in what they hoped would be a stable Iraq.

The insurgency picked up in the summer of 2004. Bombings became a daily ordeal, and a call to arms for Antwan and his fellow glass men.

"[The terrorists] will never allow a single window to remain unbroken in Iraq. They break 'em and we fix 'em," he says.

Antwan's success is a rare silver lining to the insurgency. The more bombs exploding, the more he benefits. And he's not alone. The city's morticians and generator repairmen have found themselves in a similar situation, providing crucial services that make life a little more tolerable for the city's residents.

Sohayla Gurji, a mother of six, has been preparing corpses for burial for 33 years. She washes between five and 10 corpses a day now, she says, compared to just two or three a week before the war.

Yussuf Mohammed repairs generators - a necessity for anyone who wants power more than a few hours each day. The gangly mechanic was making $4 a day fixing motorcycles before the war. Today he makes as much as $20 a day keeping the lights on for residents in his Baghdad neighborhood of Al Amil.

"I work mostly on small generators, and their quality is no good," Mr. Mohammed says. "They break all the time and someone has to fix them."

But even those who are benefiting economically from the suffering of their fellow countrymen say they wish things were different. It's depressing, says Antwan, to know that every time you repair a window, every time you buy something new for your wife, it's because somewhere there's a family that has lost a son or a daughter.

"Even if I have to be unemployed, that's better than these explosions continuing," he says.

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