We spent the past weekend visiting a couple of relatives in different parts of Baghdad, and during these visits and other events, I've noticed a marked change in Baghdad since I left it back in the end of June.
On Friday, we went to my aunt in law's house in Dakhiliya for iftar (Ramadan dinner to break fast). Going to Aunt S's house should take less than five minutes by car, but for this visit, Cousin M called my husband and warned him to come from a different route (which would lengthen our trip to about 20 minutes). All other routes to their house were closed off by army barriers and neighborhood watch groups. In addition, when we came to the beginning of their street, we'd either have to park a distance away and take a ten minute walk to their house, or we'd have to ask permission from the army patrol set up there to pass and park in our relatives' house. The army had closed off that main street in Dakhiliya and set up a watch point to guard Dakhiliya from outside attacks by militias and to weed out violent groups perhaps hiding out in the area.
Apparently, since I left in June, Dakhiliya has taken a major turn for the worse. Our cousins were telling us that corpses were daily showing up in their streets, tortured and bullet-ridden. Battles were happening between Iraqi security forces set up, and resistance forces. Militias were coming in at night and taking and killing whom they wished. Back in June, Dakhiliya was not a hotspot in Baghdad, and was relatively safe. Things have changed.
On our way home that evening, around 8 pm, we saw another of the new low-points in Baghdad life. There were no other cars on the street. The car curfew doesn't start until 9 pm, but basically after iftar time at 6 pm, it is very rare to find cars on the side streets in Baghdad, and traffic is extremely light on the main streets. I noticed the same thing when we went out last Tuesday evening around 6:45 pm. It has almost become like a ghost town.
On Saturday, we visited my husband's grandmother in Adhamiya. Since Adhamiya has been unrestful from the beginning of this Iraqi ordeal (and become much worse), and since its much further than Dakhiliya, we had to visit our grandmother early in the day, and return home way before dark. Towards the end of our visit, my husband's uncle came in and told us that he had just been stopped on their main road by a 'kid on a motorcycle.' The 'kid' asked for his ID and then signalled him to drive on. Uncle O warned us not to leave from that route and told him to beware all 'people on motorcycles.' Apparently, in Adhamiya, these men have appointed themselves security for the district, expelling anyone they saw as a threat, or worse, killing them. In Adhamiya, this spells out to 'new Shiites (new to the area)' who are seen as collaborators with the militia groups that carry out so much of the destruction in Sunni areas.
My husband is not Shiite, but we decided to take a detour to avoid this random searchpoint. Uncle O drove in front of us to show us the way out of the area, and then went back home. On our way home, around 2 pm, I noticed that all but a few of the stores in the heart of Adhamiya were closed. The main street was almost completely shut down and empty. Out of the three large supermarkets in Adhamiya, two had closed down and had 'For Sale' or 'For Rent' signs on their windows, one of them with the windows destroyed from an apparent bomb (Al An'am and AlWaha). Saturday is not a store holiday in Baghdad, so seeing all these stores closed in the middle of the day, a week before the Eid celebrations (high point in shopping season) was extremly unusual.
After we crossed the bridge from Risafa to Karkh, we passed by a side street we used to take to bypass traffic jams. My husband pointed out that that street now had a checkpoint set up by the Mahdi army/militia. Sunnis were basically not allowed there. And so we drove on.
Two years ago, during Ramadan, it was a part of the Ramadan culture to eat iftar at a different relative's house every night, and to spend a good part of the evening/night with them. During the last ten days of Ramadan, we would go pray night prayers in the mosque at 3 am. One year ago, one could still visit for iftar, but not stay too long afterwards, perhaps pray the Taraweeh prayers and then head home by nine-ish maximum. It was normal to go out for ice cream after Taraweeh, as my sister in law experienced last year. Night prayers at 3 am were out of the picture because of the night curfew, but Taraweeh was still very easy to attend.
This Ramadan, unless you're visiting someone who lives within a couple of kilometers away from you, its almost impossible to go out. Even Taraweeh prayers have become difficult to attend because of all the streets that are closed off in the city and because of the security situation. People are choosing to just stay home. To me, that's a sign of a dying city, a spirit that is dying in the people.