In Basra, protesters sent 'letters to God' via balloons. (photo: Hussein Faleh / AFP / Getty)
In Basra this week, the anti-government protests became more permanent and more popular. Around 30 large tents have been erected in front of the local authority’s headquarters. The government buildings are surrounded themselves by security forces.
The tents have become headquarters of sorts for the protesters – inside there is first aid equipment and food and drink.
Some of the tents have names – Homeland, the Tent of Martyrs, or the Basra Artists’ Tent – and they have multiplied over recent days.
Also arriving at the site of the protests now are local families. It seems that at first they were afraid to join in, but now you see mothers and fathers with their children, carrying Iraqi flags and participating in the activities here.
You are the sons of Basra. Peaceful expression of opinions is the righteous way, they chanted.
There are loudspeakers in front of the tents and the first thing the protesters decided to play was the national anthem. As it was played, some of the locals sang along or chanted the words. It was an emotional moment - some even started to cry.
One of the most notable incidents in the last few days involved the arrival of a large group of young men and women, all wearing construction helmets. The headgear was a symbol of their wish to be employed. They also carried candles in remembrance of the people who had been killed in Basra recently during these protests. The group was very well organised and they marched into the square in way that was so coordinated that onlookers were a bit surprised.
In one area, near the site of the demonstration, a group of young people had placed hundreds of candles on the ground. They lit them and chanted sad poems or songs, memorialising friends who had been killed or injured. It was another emotional scene and so moving that even the security forces who were standing nearby, joined the crowd of mourners. Some of the soldiers even lit candles.
The young locals in the square have also organised a variety of activities that have not been quite so sad. Some have formed a group they are calling Basra’s Civic Youth and they began to coordinate a variety of events.
One was called “Letters to God”. “The idea was to distribute pieces of paper to the protesters here and to ask them to write their messages to God on these, about their suffering, or hopes and wishes,” one of the organisers, Haider Najib, told NIQASH. “We then collected all the letters, put them inside balloons and sent them to the sky,” he said.
“We were sick of talking to people about our problems,” Najib continued. “So we decided to talk to God instead!”
Another game the organisers played was “Most Corrupt”. In this, the protesters were asked to vote for who they thought had been the most corrupt individual in Iraq since 2003. The voting papers were collected and the name of the person was read out in front of the crowd.
“The aim of that was to send a message to our corrupt political class,” Mohammed Farouq, an organiser of the game, explained. “And we noticed that a lot of people really liked this one – there was a lot of awareness and much enthusiasm for voting.”
The young protesters in Basra also keep a careful eye on the news from Tahrir Square in Baghdad, probably the biggest ongoing demonstration in the country, and are curious to know what is happening on Jumhuriya bridge and in the tower Baghdad demonstrators have occupied, known as the Turkish Restaurant. When they chant, they’ll often say things like “be strong, Baghdad. Move forward. We support you.”
Some of the chants also stress that the protests here should remain peaceful and demonstrators should keep their tempers. “You are the sons of Basra. Peaceful expression of opinions is the righteous way,” they say.
Just as in Baghdad, the protest site has also attracted donations of food and volunteers. Throughout the day people arrive with free food and water for the demonstrators; mattresses have also been donated. And every morning older women here prepare breakfast, bread and tea made the Basra way.
“When I heard about the demonstrations starting, I decided to bring one of the chairs from my business here,” says Mohammed Ihsan, 20, who owns a barber shop. “I’ve set it up here and I’m offering people free shaves. I consider it a duty to my country.”