Suicide bombers kill more than 50 people in separate attacks in Baghdad and Basra, police say.
“Explosion rocks central Baghdad,” read the headline, accompanied by an image showing blazing light and smoke billowing from the buildings of a crowded street.
These were words I had read too often, and pictures I had seen repeatedly.
I felt the headline weighing heavily on my heart. Yet, I took a deep breath and went to bed.
Why did I choose to ignore it? Was I just avoiding the inevitable? Was I so selfish not to want to read about the pain – pain I only try to relate to from a safe, distant place? Or has it just become too common that it doesn’t make me flinch? Am I that desensitised?
I woke up thinking of the images, guilty that I went to sleep without checking what I thought was just another blast in the Iraqi capital.
Karada, in central Baghdad, is home to churches, mosques and a synagogue. Artists and politicians, liberals and conservatives live here or visit the district’s numerous cafes, bars, restaurants, bookshops and galleries.
Its streets are lined with food stalls. Smoke from grilled meat fills the sky, but the scent of jasmine occasionally overpowers the smells of food in the air. Rows of people stand on the pavement bantering and eating. The burning orange flames of fish grills give colour to the side streets lit by a few lonely light bulbs. Men sip tea and smoke cigarettes.
Karada is a symbol of a safe, diverse and vibrant Iraq – an Iraq that many hope can be revived.
On the night of July 3, 2016, there was excitement in the air. It was one of the last days of fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and everyone was preparing for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations.
Karada’s streets were busy. Couples walked hand-in-hand and friends smoked shisha. Families ate at restaurants and children picked out new outfits to wear for the first day of Eid.
These people had no idea that this night would be their last.
Shortly after midnight, while the neighbourhood was still packed with people, a van full of explosives drove through Karada.
A massive explosion followed.
The blast ripped through restaurants and shops, setting ablaze an area of around 1,000 square metres. Karada became an inferno.
Iraq had not just witnessed another explosion – this was the largest since the 2003 US invasion. And it struck right in the very heart of Baghdad.
Hundreds of lives were lost in the attack, which was claimed by ISIL. Baghdad was broken, and Iraqis in and out of the country were mourning.
The skeletons of charred buildings stood as a memorial to all those who perished. Karada became a shrine. Hundreds gathered and spent all night lighting candles, praying and comforting each other. There was a mix of sadness, anger and devastation.
By the following morning, the death toll had risen from 83 to 200. Families waited for news as forensic teams struggled to identify unrecognisable bodies. Almost every Iraqi I knew was mourning someone who was killed in the blast.
Iraqis were consumed with any news coming from the area. Names and photographs began to surface of the identified dead. Hundreds remained missing. There were desperate pleas for information in photographs showing young, smiling, men.
All this was happening within the Iraqi community online and offline. Much of the international media, though, was quick to move on, and anyone who didn’t speak Arabic or who was not following the tragedy closely would have had no idea of the emotional devastation we felt.
Iraqis were angry and demanded truth and accountability. Why were there so many stories as to what actually happened that night? How did a van full of explosives get through a checkpoint? Why were there buildings with no fire exits in which hundreds died?
On July 4, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the attack was heinous and that the government was going to take measures to step up security.
But was “more security” what Iraq really needed, or rather security that actually worked?
At checkpoints all over Iraq, including the Karada one, cars were scanned with fake bomb detectors which the UK government banned from export in 2010.
In 2013, James McCormick, the UK businessman who sold the devices to Iraq, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a British court for fraud. Yet the Iraqi government continued to depend on these wand-like devices at checkpoints, knowing very well they didn’t work.
Eid was on July 5. How could people celebrate when so many were mourning and burying their dead?
In the days following the tragedy, Iraq’s interior minister resigned amid a wave of public anger and widespread criticism that the government is unable to ensure security in Baghdad. Security officials were also dismissed in what was seen as an attempt to calm citizens demanding answers.
The government announced that it was launching an investigation into what happened – but, for many, they may as well have not.
The investigation quickly produced a report saying what everyone already knew: that a van full of explosives was detonated.
The fake bomb detectors were removed from all checkpoints, and the case was closed, with the government never acknowledging any responsibility for the perceived security failures.
By July 7, it was confirmed that 292 were dead.
Frustrated at what he said was a lack of government action, Mortada al-Khateeb, a 24-year-old civil engineer and activist, started an online petition in a bid to gather enough signatures in the hope of getting the world’s attention in order for an official international inquiry to be launched.
In less than 48 hours, 70,000 people signed in the hope that they would be heard. But no one listened.
“I must have emailed over 200 organisations, [public] figures and news channels pleading for them to come and report on what was happening on the ground. We wanted the world to see what was going on. It felt like we didn’t matter. Like our lives were not valuable enough,” he said.
It seemed Iraq had been forgotten and forsaken.
Forensic teams continued working on identifying bodies, and by July 31, Iraq’s health ministry confirmed that the death toll had risen to 324.
The Karada explosion sadly wasn’t the only one that day. According to the Iraq Body Count, there were eight other explosions that rocked Baghdad on July 3, killing more than a dozen people in attacks that were hardly mentioned or acknowledged, even within Iraq.
It is exactly a year since the Karada explosion and families have little closure, saying that a proper, thorough government investigation was never conducted.
Forensic experts are still trying to identify bodies of those who died in the Karada attack and since then, more than 10,000 more people have died in violent incidents across Iraq.
When I went to Baghdad recently, I decided to go to the Karada bombing site. Already most of the area had been rebuilt but a small part of the shopping centre that came under attack remained.
As I walked behind the metal construction sheets, I got goosebumps. How many souls suffered and died a terrible death here? How do their families keep going?
I closed my eyes and all I could see were flashes of images I had seen of the mall before the fire, of the faces of the victims and the charred, of the hollow candlelit building I was standing in front of.
I could hear sobbing and mumbled prayers, wailing from people who slowly burned to death. I couldn’t help but feel useless and angry.
This is not the first attack on innocent people in Iraq, nor will it be the last. I can’t say it shook the world because it didn’t, but it shook each and every Iraqi. Enough Iraqis have died at the hands of Western intervention and Iraqi leaders. Mending broken buildings does not mend broken hearts. Washing away the blood on the streets doesn’t wash away the pain.
These were people just like you and me – with families who loved them, who they left behind. All surely had hopes and dreams, never imagining their lives would be taken away so savagely.
Karada matters because attacks like these target the very heart of co-existence. Karada matters because everyone’s loss hurts the same. Karada matters because Iraqi lives matter.
The hundreds that died on July 3, 2016, deserve to be remembered. Their families deserve an answer.
And the rest of us, we should savour each moment we are alive surrounded by the people we love.