BAQUBA — Continuing curfew has brought normal life to a standstill in Baquba, capital of the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad.
Through nearly three decades of rule under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis witnessed only two curfews; for the census in the 1970s and 1980s. Under the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, curfews are commonplace, enforced whenever the Iraqi government and U.S. military fail to control the situation on the ground.
A curfew means all public utilities and services cease. Life becomes frozen, and nobody is able to get to work. Factories and other utilities close, the wheel of the economy and development stops.
“When the government imposes a curfew it does not think of those who have no salary,” 39-year-old labourer Adnan al-Khazraji told IPS. “A very large number of people like me rely on daily income for their living. On the contrary, government employees feel safe whether there is a curfew or not because at the end of a month they receive the salary regardless of stoppage of work.”
Members of the government and parliament receive big salaries, “and therefore they forget poor people at such times,” Khazraji added.
Not just economically, curfews have taken their toll psychologically as well. In Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, there has been a curfew every Friday since 2005.
“I feel imprisoned when I have to keep to my home,” Salma Jabr, a resident of the city told IPS. “It is the only holiday that we have to do things like visits, shopping, travelling.”
The Friday curfew has also hit peoples’ access to medical care. “When there is an emergency, we cannot go to a hospital, a physician, or even to a pharmacy because moving in streets is not allowed,” resident Abdul-Rahim Ghaidan told IPS.
“Travellers who come from outside Iraq have to stay outside the city if they come on Friday,” said a taxi driver who did not want to give his name. “They are not allowed to go to the homes of their hosts, so everyone plans their arrivals on days other than Friday. This kind of curfew is applied only in Diyala province.”
Friday is the Muslim holy day of the week. In Baquba, curfew is enforced on other religious occasions as well.
“The Shia have more than 30 religious occasions in a year,” Ali Hassan, a resident of Baquba told IPS. “On each one, curfew is imposed by the predominantly Shia Baghdad government over all the provinces for a day or two except during Ashura. This procedure is taken for protecting Shia people when they perform their rites and ceremonies.”
And, there are other reasons for curfews in Baquba. “A curfew may be imposed when a VIP visits the city,” a local resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “It is the only way to ensure protection for the visitor.”
Schools and universities are feeling the effects of these curfews. “Curfew has a direct effect on education not only in Diyala but also in Iraq,” a university professor told IPS. “Pupils and students are obliged to keep to their homes and forget about going to school. We cannot give enough subjects to the students because of the repeatedly imposed curfews.”
The professor said it has become difficult to complete the syllabus within the academic year. “Sometimes, we wake up early to get to the college but we may be told to get back home because of curfew,” he said. “When we later ask the reason, we are told there may be a VIP visiting the city. We have to ask ourselves whether we need to stop life for such a trivial thing. The current government considers scientific process the last priority on their agenda.”
Besides the full curfew every Friday and on other days, there is a daily curfew in Baquba city everyday from 6 pm to 7 am.
“We have to finish our work before 6 pm,” a local engineer told IPS. “Long hours are lost from our time because of the curfew. We have to stop working, and stay home like animals. It is worth thinking how much work can be done during these lost hours.”
“We have to close our shops regardless how much work we have because it is curfew time,” said a local pharmacist. “It is a curse. We feel we are not free.”
“Once, my brother called me from the police station,” Jawadeldine Fakri, a local primary school teacher told IPS. “He was arrested because he was seen in the street at ten past six. He is a lawyer, and he was treated like a criminal by the police.”
“Curfew has reduced social relationships among people because people used to visit each other after they got back home from work,” city official Bahira Jabbar told IPS. “Visiting anyone is difficult now.”
(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East)