Baghdad, Iraq – On a recent afternoon on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, masked men hailed down and inspected a red tuk-tuk speeding towards the area, in an effort to keep armed civilians from entering the heart of anti-government demonstrations.
Positioned on either side of the road, they patted down civilians on foot as one young man wielded a metal rod.
“Some people brought knives before so we decided to set these up,” said Ali, 18, one of the protesters in charge of running the makeshift checkpoint.
The security spot-check was one among dozens established in and around the square since the start of Iraq’s second wave of protests on October 25. Once a major transit point into the heavily fortified Green Zone, the roundabout has transformed into the hub of the capital’s uprising.
Deadly clashes between protesters and security forces intensified last weekend. More than 300 people have been killed since the first wave of demonstrations began on October 1. But there is no sign of protests abating as anger now focuses on foreign meddling in the country, as well as government failures.
“This is the first time that people have risen up and asked for change,” said Mohammed Rahin, 31. “Regime change has always been through an armed coup or foreign intervention. We want the UN to stop Iran intervening in Iraq.”
Partly hidden behind a high-rise known as the “Turkish Restaurant” and flanked by lower-lying buildings, the location of Tahrir Square makes it a stronghold. At the square, protesters said, they created what the government has been unable to since the 2003 US-led invasion – a functioning pseudo state.
“The people have taken to the streets and achieved what the government couldn’t do,” said Abdul Jabar, 31, an Iraqi flag draped around his shoulders.
Equipped with a seemingly functional hierarchical structure, water and food, street-sweepers, and prayer rooms, the square offers basic services. These include some that the oil-rich country has struggled to provide Iraqis with, such as healthcare.
Al Kasim al-Abady, a 31-year-old activist, said the rehabilitation of the square and its surrounding areas has been one of the great successes of the uprising.
In the Turkish Restaurant building, a strategic high-rise taken over by protesters on October 25, they have “delivered electricity, water and shelter for hundreds of people who live there”, said al-Abady.
In the green heart of the square, barbers give tired demonstrators free hair cuts. Across the road, beneath a flimsy tent, volunteers hand out water and food. A middle-aged man, named Hissam, and his team of 30 provide six free meals a day, including their own home-baked bread. Most of the food is paid out of the volunteers’ own pockets, some are donated by other protesters.
Amid the demonstrators are also the poor and hungry of central Baghdad, who have found in the ongoing chaos a place to sleep and eat, as well as medical care.
Prayer rooms have also been made available throughout the square. Inside the leafy Ummah garden, a tent has been pitched next to a memorial dedicated to the protesters killed since the start of the uprising.
Photographs of some of the more than 300 dead are displayed against a black backdrop. People come in to see their faces, one young man sobs quietly in front of a photo.
‘We are unstoppable’
Beneath the square, what was once a grim tunnel has become an open-air art museum. Colourful murals decorate the concrete walls of the walkway with poignant political messages such as “Iran go out of Iraq”, “Iraq for Iraqi people”, and “We are unstoppable”.
Some protesters laid out free books on the pavement, including George Orwell’s 1984, offering a quiet space to read amid the commotion.
On the northern and western borders of the square, a group of unarmed young men in helmets and goggles stand their ground against the government’s more powerful security forces.
In a statement on Saturday, Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government to rein in its security forces that it accused of illegal killings.
“The government of Iraq has a duty to protect its people’s right to life, as well as to gather and express their views. This bloodbath must stop now and those responsible for it must be brought to justice,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, said.
On Saturday evening at the square, as burning tyres sent plumes of smoke into the air and security forces periodically fired tear gas and live ammunition, tuk-tuks carrying wounded protesters sped dangerously towards the medical tents. Where yellow taxis once congested the streets, the drivers of the small rickety vehicles have taken up aiding the wounded and transporting protest-goers without charge.
Volunteer medics receive emergency patients in makeshift clinics. Most aid protesters who have inhaled tear gas, while some remove bits of shrapnel under the light of a mobile phone.
Others, like 23-year-old Zain Fatah, work close to the front lines and are often faced with the worst cases. One protester was so badly wounded, said Fatah, his “brains were falling into my hands”.
With the death toll rising to more than 300 and nearly 15,000 injured, medics on the ground have been working overtime. “I wish the government would provide a cure for cancer like they [provide] tear gas,” one young man said.
Human Rights Watch said on Friday that tear gas cartridges were being fired directly at protesters, while Amnesty International has called on Iraqi authorities to “immediately rein in security forces”. Rights groups have also denounced the intimidation and kidnapping of activists and medics.
Back at the checkpoint, self-appointed guard Ali and his colleagues say they do not work with the police, who patrol the streets unarmed, by agreement with the protesters. However, added the teenager, they do alert them to any threats or suspicious individuals. So far there have been no known attempts to attack the busy square.
Although theoretically lawless, Tahrir Square is functioning within a state that has been largely incapable of providing jobs, access to drinking water or electrical power.
While most of Iraq’s 40 million residents suffer from inadequate basic services and a lack of economic opportunity, Tahrir Square has returned a sense of national belonging and purpose to many disillusioned Iraqis.
“For 16 years, they fooled us in the name of religion, they dizzied us with their ceremonies. But they robbed us,” said 25-year-old Mujahed, a protester at Tahrir Square. “They split us apart, but now we’re uniting.”