Iraqis seek places to 'breathe' amid deadliest summer in years

Baghdad residents are flocking to the city's sparkling new mall and amusement park to take their mind off of the increasing violence in the capital. 

Residents gather at the site of a car bomb attack a day after in Baghdad August 7, 2013. A series of car bombs targeting busy markets and shopping streets in and around Baghdad killed at least 51 people and wounded more than 100 on Tuesday, Iraqi medical and police sources said, part of a surge in violence in recent months.

In Baghdad’s dust, destruction, and 120-degree heat, the city’s biggest new shopping mall is a gleaming oasis of chilled air and pent-up dreams.

On most days, just a few minutes after opening, the parking lot of the Mansour Mall is nearly full and customers are waiting in line outside to be frisked.

The portable cabins where male and female security guards pat down customers, looking for bombs, has become the cost of going almost anywhere in Baghdad. But it doesn’t seem to faze Iraqis who are braving the streets in the most violent summer in years.

“This is a place for families to come, to be able to breathe for a little bit,” says Jabar Said, a security manager at the newly opened Mansour Mall.  “They buy clothes for the kids, drink coffee or have something to eat, the children play games…. They can do anything they want here.” He says 2,000 to 3,000 people a day have been visiting the mall since it opened six weeks ago.

Through the glass doors and a set of metal detectors lie three floors of Turkish and European clothing, accessories, and cosmetics, with many brands making their Baghdad debut. Gold jewelry from the Gulf and Italy glitters in shop windows.

Upstairs, a tinny version of "It’s a Small World After All" plays over the sound system while children run between a bouncing ball castle and mechanical rides.

On the top floor is Baghdad’s first movie cinema to open in decades.

Dhuha Fawaz was too young to remember when Iraqis could go out to see a film.  But after her university classes, she sells tickets at the seven-screen cinema.

“My mother asked me to stop working because of the bombings, but I insisted,” she says. “You can’t escape your fate.”

For an $8 ticket, moviegoers choose reserved seats from an electronic diagram of the theatre. The cinema features mostly action movies: World War Z, the latest installment of Fast and Furious, and White House Down.

“We have lots of people coming, but if we had more security in Baghdad even more would come,” says Dhuha.

Like most Iraqis, she doesn’t know what to make of the endless car bombs. “One day I’m hopeful, the next I’m not,” she says.

A new normal

Violence in Iraq has been rising, with coordinated bombings killing more than 1,000 people in July – the highest monthly total in five years. On Tuesday, six bombings in Baghdad marketplaces killed at least 27 people and wounded about 80.

Unlike previous attacks claimed by Al Qaeda and aimed at security forces and Shiite areas, the latest violence has hit crowded market places, cafes, and even football fields after Iraqis break their dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

It takes the most severe of bombings to keep Iraqis at home in the evening after enduring the heat and electricity cuts.

On a recent evening in Baghdad’s newest amusement park, Jinan Abdul Kareem dressed up and put their six-old month baby in a stroller to go out with her husband.

“Security hasn’t changed but there are more and more beautiful places like this one where we see people having fun so the situation is better,” says Jinan, walking past fountains and rides bright with colored lights.  “We hear about explosions but it has become normal. We’ve gotten used to it. It doesn’t mean we have to stay home.”

“Our mothers and wives and children have become stronger than us – they are insisting we go out and live our lives normally,” says Samir Qays Hussein who took his family to live in Syria but returned to Iraq because it became too dangerous there. “Sometimes I say ‘no way there’s an explosion’ and they say ‘No, let’s go – we are suffocating.’”

Seeking a future

Behind the smiles are signs of a country still fragmenting.

“I hope they don’t target us, but we are doing our best to provide security,” says Qusay Abdul Jailil Kamal, the amusement park company manager.

He says business isn’t as good as they had hoped when they started building a year ago, but is better than they expected given the current violence. The rides, German and Italian-made, were meant to be installed by the companies’ European engineers. They cancelled their trips to Iraq due to security.

“We went as a delegation abroad to get lessons on how to install the rides,” says Kamal. “This has now been done 100 percent by Iraqis.”

One of the Iraqi engineers says he is trying to leave the country. His daughter has already emigrated – one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi professionals who have fled.

“There is no future here,” the engineer says sadly. 

Other families say even the bombings don’t bother them as much as the lack of jobs, particularly for young people. Honed during three devastating wars in the past four decades, Iraqi bravado endures.

‘We are challenging the terrorists – the bombings don’t stop us,” says Um Mustafa, who says she plans to stay until midnight to try all the rides.

“If things are so good, why did you send your son to America?” her teenage daughter asks her as they walk away.

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