Iraq’s tuk-tuks, once a nuisance, now a necessity
BAGHDAD - Among the thousands of people wounded in anti-government protests rocking Iraq, many owe their life to the likes of Haidar Mohannad, a tuk-tuk driver and volunteer who is helping to move the injured and ferry food and supplies to protesters.
Previously shunned as a nuisance zipping through Baghdad’s horrendous traffic, the coloured three-wheelers are now a welcome sight amid the protests in which more than 320 people have been killed and at least 6,000 injured across Iraq.
“It is our national duty and contribution to the uprising,” Mohannad, 22, said as he swerved his yellow tuk-tuk into Tahrir Square, a protest gathering spot in central Baghdad, despite his bandaged hand.
“I was burned by tear gas canisters while rescuing a young man who was trying to cross al Jumhuriya Bridge with hundreds of protesters. The security forces targeted the protesters directly, causing many casualties,” he said.
Tuk-tuk drivers have become unexpected heroes of the demonstrations that began October 1. They are on the front lines, defying stun grenades and tear gas fired by security forces.
The red and yellow vehicles queue up near protest hubs, ready to move to meet an emergency.
Mohannad said that, because of the closure of the area and the crowds packed tightly on the streets, ambulances either can’t reach victims or become targets for snipers.
“We are transporting the wounded and the martyrs to the ambulances waiting outside the square. We have also taken them straight to the hospitals when ambulances were not available,” he said.
The tuk-tuk driver said he feels proud to be part of what he calls “the team” that has gained admiration and appreciation at home and abroad.
“The popular protests were inevitable,” he said. “We have been living in poverty and deprivation for the past 16 years. The authorities will have to heed the demands of the people; otherwise we will remain in the streets endlessly. We owe this to the many victims who died.”
Although Iraq is oil rich with estimated reserves of 112 billion barrels, more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. The figure tops 50% in certain southern governorates with a Shia majority.
The three-wheelers have been transporting protesters who cannot walk long distances to the squares.
“Nobody expected the protests to continue all this time,” said Sattar Jabbar who jumped into one of the vehicles heading towards a demonstration on al Jumhuriya Bridge. “We are all ready to sacrifice and risk our life to get a second chance to salvage our country from insecurity, poverty and corruption.
“Each person is playing a role. For instance, these young tuk-tuk drivers contributed in the rescuing of tens of protesters injured by tear gas grenades. They even lost their life doing that.”
The tuk-tuk drivers have been the targets of security forces. Snipers have reportedly killed two of them, shooting them in the head.
The parliamentary committee on human rights said at least 320 people have been killed in the protests. Most injuries were caused by tear gas canisters fired directly at protesters. Some were killed by unidentified snipers.
The use of excessive force to crack down on the protests did not deter the protesters or the tuk-tuk drivers determined to assist them.
“The role we are assuming gave me hope and incentive. We want to help shape a better future for our children so that they may have a better life than ours which was lost in deprivation and lack of opportunities,” said tuk-tuk driver Ahmad Awdeh, 41.
He said he has been busy day and night since the protests started.
“During the day I transport supplies and casualties. At night, I shuttle people to the candlelight vigils taking place every evening around the statue of liberty to honour the victims of the protests,” Awdeh said.
While Iraqis appear to be determined to keep up the protests until they force real change in the political system, which they accuse of being corrupt, inept and the cause of rampant poverty and economic depression, the tuk-tuk drivers will remain an icon of humanity in the “revolution of the hungry,” Awdeh said.