From the Liberty Square to the Green Zone

علي الزعاك

“كان ثائر العملاق من بين جموع المنتفضين الذين قرروا عبور الجسرعلى نهر دجلة لكنه وجد نفسه قائداً عن غير قصد وكان زعيم اللحظة التي باركها جسر الجمهورية عندما كان المنتفضون يهمون بالانحدار منه مواجهين بطش السلطة المتمركزة عند الضفة الأخرى. كان عليه أن يرتجل فن القياده طالبا من رفاقه رصّ أكتافهم كتفا بكتف كما الصلاة ومن ثم التحاف ألواح الكونكريت حماية لهم من الرصاص. كان تشكيلاً سريالياً متحركاً تداخلت فيه أكتاف الثورة وحائطها الاسمنتي المتقدم كأنه قطار من حجر.”

Ali Al-Zaak

Synopsis:

“Among the protestors who decided to cross the bridge on the Tigris River was a man of enormous size. The peaceful demonstrator “Thaer” was perhaps the tallest natural giant in the country with a shocking height of almost 2.2 m and huge muscles. He was possibly the strongest man to live in the age of uprising as he removed a loaded truck on his own from the Al-Tahrir Square.”

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Grafiti on the walls of Al-Tahrir Bridge

In Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, the commander-in-chief of Moscow during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, published posters asking the citizens to put their faith in religious icons. He said, “What reason was there for assuming any probability of an uprising in the city? 

Often there is no obvious reason for what happens. The issue is: should we ask questions like, “Why are they doing this or that, or what’s the reasoning behind it?” when the general answer is always simple: they’re doing it because they can.

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Even though oppression is never as powerful as deception, the puppet Premier said:

“It looks like we are down to harsh strength now.” 

He was trying to satisfy the immediate bosses of the notorious militias that the government had included among its state forces. They were the actual rulers of the country, and they had chosen to crush the uprising using their thug factions.

“I mean, I could try a brute force attack,” he said.

The Premier was willing to maintain the existing state of affairs. He paid little attention to the atrocities and the use of armed forces under his power to stop the demonstrations. In doing so, he could alternate between street walls and social media walls. He checked most of the boxes when it came to his foreign masters. 

The militias’ bosses gestured to him, tilting their heads alternating up and down. They implemented the decision and went to pray in the hall even though prayers on a usurped area or somebody else’s property without their permission are not morally valid.

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Prolonged tolerance for more than 16 years was enough for an uprising against a system that practised all kinds of violence, deception and unprecedented corruption.

It all started with the invasion of the country by Western foreign troops who installed a fraudulent regime run by dishonest agents. The so-called “tails” of the occupants showed no gratitude to their masters. They replaced the invaders with their old Eastern masters  (being Iran) while slapping their chests and humming the song Irreplaceable:

“Don’t you ever for a second get to thinking
you’re irreplaceable; I won’t shed a tear for you.” 

The Eastern masters sponsored a systematic policy of fomenting a divisive consciousness. It pushed hard into religious disharmony using expressions like majority and minority and provoked sectarian violence. This “divide and rule” concept worked for many years causing wide-scale displacement, refugees and fleeing across the borders.

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Feeling betrayed and defeated, the ruined nation stopped licking its wounds and recovered. The youth regained a sense of self-determination and freedom of spirit. They realised that no amount of brute force could ever crush their will. They learned from their miserable present and glorious past that no power is capable of breaking their unshakeable will of autonomy. 

They led the uprising against injustice and foreign domination. It was evident that the country’s power relied on stolen dreams and oil wealth, which was an unhappy truth. They united and collected their spiritual power in the central roundabout of the capital. 

With the help of social media, they organized their first gathering in Tahrir (Liberation) Square on the eastern banks of the River Tigris. The location consists of public spaces with the Al-Ummah (Nation) Garden, situated behind. Most famous is the sculptured Nasb al-Hurriyah (The Freedom Monument), representing the 1958 revolution and transition of the country from monarchy to a republic system. The carving was neglected for many years, but it was eager to continue witnessing the events that led to the creation of the troubled republic.

It is very unlikely that the country’s youth thought about a French-style revolution or intended to mirror the Paris Commune. There was no Danton,  Robespierre or Count of Mirabeau as a voice among them to lead. They rose against the wickedness of the regime that was governed by vulgar and hugely unpopular armed politicians. However, execution by guillotine of the militia bosses was probably a common wish shared by all citizens.

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The Al-Tahrir events started as peaceful demonstrations asking to dissolve the armed factions and for active infrastructure. The number of demonstrators gradually multiplied from tens to thousands. As the weekly gathering became daily, the young participants decided to live on the roundabout, bringing the place back to life. Donations of food, clothes, blankets and other goods started to trickle in from their families, friends and supporters.

The authorities were unresponsive to their demands. Instead, they used force to disperse the youth, but that didn’t frighten them. They were in the process of shaping a utopia commune on the roundabout through highly organised relations that attracted huge public support. They created a perfect fictional community with an impossibly ideal social structure. The youth declared that they were not after a state of ultimate felicity and perfection. They wanted to be safe and reclaim their country, with equality for citizens and access to education, healthcare, employment and so forth.

Young people in other major cities followed the pattern. Students, workers, women and children joined in. They started rallying against the system’s corruption and brutality.

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Right from the beginning, simple metal creatures imposed their presence in Al-Tahrir Square. These were smoky tricycles locally called Tuk-Tuk. They became an icon navigating through the uprising. After being the face of deprived conditions, used as a taxi in poor suburbs, the glorious thin vehicle landed from the horizon into the Square, in harmony with the revolt outbreak. 

Their drivers became improbable heroes. They zigzagged among the huge crowd carrying food and supplies for the peaceful demonstrators. More importantly, they evacuated victims of the shells used by the ruthless militia forces. They rushed victims of live bullets and serious wounds to hospitals, while other victims of plastic bullets or tear gas were carried to  medical tents set up on the roundabout by volunteers. They became the symbol of the uprising.

A small group of intellectuals on the roundabout produced “Tuk- Tuk,” a newspaper that aimed to be the voice of the masses, while painters drawing posters through the tunnel under Al-Tahrir Square added artistic flavour to the scene.

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The weak Premier ordered the state forces to step aside, which gave the militia free rein to deal with the uprising. They frequently raided the peaceful protest movement at the Square using excessive force. They used military-grade tear gas canisters that shatter skulls causing horrific injuries and death when directly fired at protesters, aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range. These gas canisters are ten times heavier than standard. The pattern of such assaults was systematic rather than isolated accidents. 

Oddly enough, some of the shooters fired tear gas cartridges in a flat trajectory at crowds less than 100 metres away. They were trying to kill, not to disperse. Moreover, “the contrast in firing techniques raises the question of whether militants were operating under different orders, whether they all had orders to disperse the crowds in any way they saw fit, or whether forces were disregarding their orders.” 

While relying increasingly on tear gas in the capital, militia forces continued using live ammunition. Excessive force was also used in provinces like Nasiriyah, Babel, Najaf and Karbala. The abduction and assassination of youth activists were equally effectual. Calls by the public as well as by international bodies for the prosecution of killers were ignored.

While the thunderous tricycles shaped the whole uprising, the ironic element is that the Tuk-Tuk drivers protested that the militia forces used expired tear gas cartridges against them. They demanded using fresh ones after noticing the different smells and symptoms confirmed by the date on the cans. 

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Some of the protestors, exhausted from facing down the daily state violence, decided to cross Al-Jumhuriya bridge and break into the Green Zone at the western shore of the Tigris River.

The Green Zone is the common name for the International sector. The contrasting Red Zone refers to parts of the capital immediately outside the perimeter. Since the foreign invasion and occupation of the country in 2003, ordinary people had been unable to access it because of the tall blast-proof concrete T-walls, barbed wire and armed checkpoints. “Although it appears under siege, the ultimate gated community is almost self-sufficient, and staff working there can be treated in the compound’s hospital or run safely on its grounds. When they leave, it is by armoured car with an armed escort”. The Green Zone is nicknamed “The Bubble.” 

The Presidency, government sections, parliament and many foreign embassies were isolated within the Bubble, unaware of life elsewhere. The corrupt rulers of the country inside were mentally and physically cut off from the local population.

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Among the protestors who decided to cross the bridge on the Tigris River was a man of enormous size. The peaceful demonstrator “There” was perhaps the tallest natural giant in the country with a shocking height of almost 2.2 m and huge muscles. He was possibly the strongest man to live in the age of uprising as he removed a loaded truck on his own from the Al-Tahrir roundabout.

The attempts to cross the bridge were not easy because of the concrete walls, barbed wire and the strong security post bollards at the bridgehead. However, the protestors called “Up Against the Walls” started at this spot. After many intermittent clashes, fits and starts, they broke through, forcing the security post to withdraw to the other end of the bridge.  

The demonstrators built up and pushed to move further. In the middle of the bridge, Thaer acted as an instant leader. He instructed them to stop.

“I will lead, wait and watch for my signal,” he said and continued the walk alone, sliding down towards the security fortification at the foot of the bridge. At the security post, masked riflemen had taken up shooting positions. They ordered him to go back, threatened to open fire.

“I have an offer for you, just let me come closer,” he yelled, hoping the officer in charge would be sensible.

Thaer raised his hands and saw that they had agreed to his request. They realised that the big man was representing a big crowd supported by the arches on the bridge, marching towards them. 

The officer moved one of the platoon’s Humvees forward with three men in military uniform sheltering behind it.

“Step aside and let us pass through please,” said Thaer, addressing the officer in a determined voice.

“I can’t let you; my orders are to shoot anyone who attempts to pass my post,” the officer replied.

“I want to avoid unnecessary confrontation. Please step aside and let us pass.” When the officer refused, Thaer said:

“To stand by your dignity, I urge you not to fire until we reach an understanding; you may order your men to arrest me without shooting.”

The officer did that, ordering his men to arrest Thaer. Amazingly, the three men were thrown into the air and landed at the muddy riverbank. The officer couldn’t believe his eyes, shocked how the man could take them that easily. He ordered more troops, but they were thrown in different directions, unconscious. The officer jumped into the Humvee‘s tower, trying to reach the machine gun, but the giant was faster and pushed the $200,000 armoured vehicle over the fence of the bridge foot. The traumatized officer ordered the rest of his humiliated platoon to withdraw. 

Thaer signalled to the demonstrators on the top of the bridge to advance slowly in discontinuous waves to ovoid overcrowding and as a precaution against possible long-range shelling.

The mass joined him at the foot of the bridge, where he found himself required to answer their queries about the next move. As the impromptu leader of the demonstration by, he instructed them to move forward and assemble before the fortified barricade at the entrance of the Green Zone. 

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With a group of demonstrators, Thaer headed to the right instead of continuing straight on to the main gate of the Bubble.

They reached the nearby foreign cultural centre.  To the majority, this place is charged with sedition for promoting religious sectarianism. It represents a foreign state that sponsors division, discord, disruption of national unity and supporting the corrupt Mullah’s regime.

The protestors marched by the centre, chanting a slogan that was common within Al-Tahrir Square and elsewhere. They knew that this facility, through its “tailes” of the militia, is behind the killings in the streets.

As burning the flag of the alien country became a frequent practice in the capital and other provinces, the protestors tried to reach that symbol on the centre’s building. However, a militia unit was guarding the gate, reinforced with barbed wire and concrete blocks. 

Similar to the bridge scenario, Thaer tried to communicate with their boss, but the man was aggressive and threatened to shoot at them. Thaer was at the edge over which anything may be thrown. He attacked the man and flung him away like a horse throws its rider. The protesters unarmed the shaky unit personnel without a single shot. They were not going to confront the crowd and just melted away.

Unexpectedly at such a “cultural” centre,  there were two snipers located on the balcony of the building. They started shooting at random, killing and wounding many civilian demonstrators who took shelter behind the concrete blocks. Thaer was getting angry seeing the massacre committed by the snipers. He managed to reach the main entrance, unhinged the door and jumped on the stairs up to the balcony. He was unstoppable. His roaring frightened the centre’s staff; they locked themselves inside their offices. 

When he reached the balcony, enraged, he smashed the two snipers, breaking the rifles on their heads, and then threw them down to the angry protestors to avenge their killed colleagues.

The protestors stormed the building as the staff tried to shut them out physically by locking down, hoping for other troops to come to their aid or that the host government could evacuate them.

There was armed militia en route to engage. They tried the back gate of the Green Zone but the demonstrators blocked that way. After unsuccessfully trying to use one of the other access points, the force gave up, out of fear the protestors would attack them.  

The staff who sheltered themselves managed to hold out for a short time. The protestors destroyed the locked doors, getting them out while they were trying to destroy documents. They were paraded outside the facility for a few minutes, blindfolded and listening to the chanting crowd.

Seeing buses in the building, the on-the-spot leader Thaer decided to set them free. They were not interested in taking hostages. He instructed the staff to ride the buses and ordered the drivers to take them to Badrah, which is the closest border town to the east. 

The protestors confiscated and displayed documents to confirm already known facts. That centre was destabilising the country to keep it weak and under its control. The documents included correspondences and security reports. Documents also verified that hundreds of fellow countrymen and politicians were on the centre’s payroll.

As the dust settled, some of the demonstrators called to burn the building, but Thaer forbade it, saying that they would use it as their headquarters to break into the Bubble. They called it al-Qadisiyyah Building, a reference to the decisive battle of al-Qadisiyyah, fought in 636 between the Arab Muslim army and the army of the Sasanian Empire during the first period of Muslim conquests.

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Thaer joined the other protestors assembled before the gate of the Bubble. When they stepped forward, the alert security post fired plastic bullets at them without warning. That didn’t deter the protestors in spite of the scores of successful hits. Instead, they started singing a modified version of “Plastic Bullets” by “The Wolfe Tones”, an Irish rebel music band: 

So you divided up my land.
All “provinces” in your hand.
And so you take my home,
But you cannot take my mind.


Then you tried to keep me down.
With your tanks and guns,
In “my” streets and towns.
And you shoot your plastic bullets
To keep your plastic State in my troubled land.

While the protesters kept moving, the post at the gate called for backup from inside the Green Zone. When it arrived, they used tear gas canisters. The protestors retreated to prepare their defence. They equipped themselves with handkerchief masks, water bottles and pieces of cloths to be used as protective gloves. Their technique was simple; throw water on the tear gas canisters if they could not throw them back at the shooters.

In spite of those suffocated with symptoms of hypoxia, drowning and asphyxiation, the protestors advanced again. The security forces aimed the military-grade tear gas canisters at their heads, shattering the skulls of three protesters. Another security backup unit shot live rounds of bullets, causing the deaths of many demonstrators. Aiming at heads and chests caused either critical wounds or death on the spot.

The deadly use of live ammunition and tear gas angered the protestors. They exploded, seeing the police force defending the ruling elite that enriched itself off the state and served a foreign country as they, the protestors, suffered poverty and neglect.

They started throwing bricks and stones at the post while sheltering behind concrete walls erected basically to interrupt the traffic. Thaer found a vulnerable spot in the security line. He used a concrete tablet as a shield to move ahead and pulled out some bars and barbed wire. When he reached the position, he knocked many out and the rest of the personnel fled for their lives.  

The crowd followed him to swarm into the main gate. To avoid further bloodshed, Thaer practised his spontaneous protest skill/art and an old military tactic. He asked the protestors to group themselves around him and carry some precast concrete blocks. Like the rulers themselves in their quest for security, he instructed the protestors to form a shield wall. Each protestor became part of a wall of shields while standing shoulder to shoulder, so that the overlapped shields offered a complete defence. They advanced through the last security line at the entrance of the governing space inside the Bubble. The ghostly bullets couldn’t pass through their shields, and the mobile battleground made it through with firm steps.

Ironically, a wall of riot shields is a common formation for police worldwide for protection against violent demonstrations.

The surreal convoy of the cement-armoured protestors was magical. It was like a proletariat train struggling up in agony. However, it accomplished Thaer’s plan, turning part of the Forbidden City into a public space. They knocked down the collective response of the Green Zone or the Bubble.

The protestors smashed those who shot at them, while other security forces watched the rocky train reach the portico of the convention centre. Thaer decided that there was no point in breaking into the government buildings. He intended to declare from the conference hall the popping of the Bubble and the liberation of the country. 

The steel door of the conference hall withheld for a while. Using the protest technique again, the protestors deployed their shield wall to demolish it.

As there was no resistance from the guardians of the failure, it was an epic victory of the precast concrete community over those using tear gas canisters and live bullets.

The concrete wallers chanted through the loudspeakers of the conference hall in the Green Zone: “Baghdad stays free.” The long years of political comedy stopped being funny. The victorious protestors elected Thaer to lead the country for a better future. They tasked him with first establishing a clean legal system to prosecute the murderers and thieves.

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