by Prashant Rao
Since I arrived in Baghdad, by far the most frequent question I am asked by friends and family back home has to do with what the country is like, and I’m increasingly of the belief that two words characterise the country — heartache and hope.
Recently, I experienced both in one whirlwind day, and I am not yet sure which outweighed the other, if either did at all.
In the morning, a day after a wave of attacks against churches in Baghdad and Mosul, northern Iraq, left four people dead and 32 injured, I visited the church worst hit — the Church of Our Lady of Sacred Heart off Palestine Streetin eastern Baghdad – and spoke to its bishop.
The church windows had been blasted in, its walls had been charred black, and its access street had been cordoned off on both sides after a car bomber had killed four people and injured 21 on Sunday. As I walked into the church compound, a mess of black metal that was once a car was being loaded onto the back of a truck.
Shlemon Warduni’s two mobile phones were ringing constantly with messages from supporters who passed along their respects, and the imam from the mosque across the street had also paid a visit.
Warduni asked rhetorically why anyone would do such a thing — “Why? Why? This is what we are always asking, why?” he said — and wondered aloud what would happen to the families of the people killed and injured, even those who had lost their cars in the attack, alluding to the daily struggle that is life in Baghdad for most of its residents.
“Somebody came, saying the government will do something,” to rebuild the church, he said, almost dismissively. “But this is not the real problem, the problem is for the families of the people who died, the other people who were injured.”
Asked whether he feared minorities were being explicitly targeted, he replied: “I don’t want to feel that, I don’t want to think that but, it seems like that.”
Later in the day, I attended the first international football fixture in Baghdad since the 2003 invasion, and the atmosphere was electric, with more than 50,000 football-crazed fans cheering on their team in a friendly match against the Palestinian national team.
As the Iraqi players took to the pitch, their supporters let out a deafening roar, soldiers climbed onto the stands holding in the fans and danced with them, urging them to cheer louder, and it almost felt like six years of bottled up energy was being let loose in just one night.
The end result was 4-0 in favour of the hosts, but it almost did not matter — one special forces officer at the match noted how remarkable it was that so many Iraqis were attending a match at all in the evening, a reference to 2006 and 2007 when communal violence between Sunnis and Shiites engulfed the country and going out after dark was extremely dangerous.
The crowds were fervently chanting “Iraq” in unison, a nationalist and non-sectarian chant, showing once again that sports could have a positive impact on people.
So which is it? Signs of unity or still-present violence? Hope or heartache?