From a Baghdad bus, scenes of a broken city

Journey: Along its 24-mile route, the No. 99 offers a tour through misery -- and a glimpse of the difficult road ahead.

Postwar Iraq

April 24, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Suffering a serious spinal cord injury seems like a real possibility on this city's red double-decker, smoke-belching buses, given how they heave and jerk and slam their passengers without mercy against the white plastic seats. And that's when the buses are traveling slowly.

But the No. 99 bus is running, and picking up passengers, loads of them, and in a city searching for anything approaching normality, that is an accomplishment. The only question is whether the driver will be able to coax the bus through another round trip from Rashid Street to the city's Jihad District, 12 miles to the southwest and 12 miles back again.

The route is like a scenic tour for the cynical, a visual confirmation of what many people here still believe in their hearts: This place will never be right. Through the spider-web cracks in the bus windshield, through its missing side windows, is a look at what the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and one more war, has wrought. And in all directions along its stop-and-go-and-mostly-stopped journey, is a view of what will be needed to fix a broken city.

To the left, a looted museum. To the right, a burned-out government building, then another one. Around the corner, a distraught butcher nearly eating the flies that swarm the animal blood covering him and the meat in his shop because he is out of ice to cool his hanging lamb.

Up ahead, a businessman waiting, hoping, praying for his first customer in weeks, though his darkened store - he has not had electricity for a month - is hardly an advertisement for his wares. He sells light bulbs. Ahead further, a political protest: Out with the Americans, in with their worst nightmare, an Islamic state.

In the bus seats, a married couple with 18 children looking for vacant government land on which to build a house, an inexplicably cheerful retired man taking a sightseeing tour of burning Baghdad, a disgusted young student with question after question: Is this what America wanted? How are we going to clean up this place? What is to become of Baghdad?

And behind the big black steering wheel of the bus is Hadi Husain, babying it like a mother then slapping it viciously in the pedals with his feet, squinting through the cracked windshield, pushing back in his seat as he uses a bit of body language to talk the Baghdad 99 into moving forward.

"I am an experienced bus driver," he says, as if experience could make up for the lack of a clean air filter and clean spark plugs, and for a tired engine. "I will make it keep going."

His bus is supposed to travel from Kadhimiya to Amiryah, but, like most everything in the city, its route has been adapted to fit the times. Now it starts near Rashid Street. Even before one hops on the bus, the challenges of fixing Baghdad are apparent - even if the estimated $100 billion needed for the job were to drop out of the sky today.

The looters' market

The new route begins at a corner that has become the looters' market. There, men, women and children sell items from government buildings, from private businesses and apparently from homes, all of the goods probably stolen in the first lawless days of the government's collapse.

An old man with no shoes and dirty feet and a dirty gray beard sits cross-legged on a grimy red blanket with wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers spread before him, next to plumbing equipment, connectors, washers and diverters.

"Found them," he says.

For sale here are car speakers and student desks, file cabinets, compressors, batteries, telephones, tennis shoes, pistachios, soccer cleats, reel-to-reel tapes, computer keyboards with missing letters, clocks, lamps, combs, tool kits, pharmaceuticals, nails, electrical receptacles, scissors, a book on Lenin, an oxygen tank and mask that soon sells for $5.

And, yes, there is a kitchen sink.

The looting of Baghdad, which seems to have ended with the creation of neighborhood militias armed with rifles and organized by the imams of the city's mosques, hit virtually every part of town. Amid the chaos, medicines were stolen from hospitals, schools burned and millions of dollars in cash and precious gold snatched from banks.

At the Iraqi Islamic Bank, next to the looters' market, bullet holes pock the door and the interior is ransacked.

"We lost everything," says Taha Majeed, the general manager. "They even took the calculators."

As Baghdad 99 pulls out, the view is no more encouraging. To the right are the remains of a telephone exchange, which accounts in part for the lack of phone service in almost every part of the city.

According to U.S. military officials, about half of the 29 telephone exchanges should be working by now, though the lack of electricity means that many are not. Baghdad, for all the high-tech gadgetry used in the war, for all the new openness that the fall of Hussein has brought, is largely an island cut off from the world. Few here know what is happening outside the city. Many people do not know what is happening across the street.

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