The Tigris, Abandoned by Fish
The wooden boats float on the edge of the Tigris River, bumping each other with a deep, empty sound -- the only sound on the river at 6 a.m. The sun brings a soft haze to the water, which reflects skyscrapers from the other side. Seven ferrymen sit in the back of their motorboats. They are quiet and comfortable in one another's company, waiting for customers to ferry across the river.
Six years ago they were fishermen, not ferrymen. But now, in the Haifa neighborhood of Baghdad, sewage runs through the narrow alleyways directly into the river. Waterside restaurants stand abandoned, their owners still afraid to open their doors. The fish have disappeared.
"My family used to fish day and night. But times have changed," says Latif Mahmoud, 65, his long face heavy with wrinkles. "I catch one, two fish a day now, and sometimes even they don't show up."
Some of the fishermen blame Syria and Iran for the lack of fish. They suspect those countries of holding back the river's water supply. Others blame a lack of regulations since the government collapsed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, allowing people to overfish.
Regardless, there aren't enough fish to even pay for fuel, Mahmoud says. A single gunshot from a bridge disturbs the quiet but is barely acknowledged.
Mahmoud exhales, a short laugh. His grandfather, he says, was also a ferryman -- he used a tire to float people across before there were working bridges. Now many bridges are closed, off-limits in the Green Zone or blocked by checkpoints. Traffic is fierce. The bridges are, again, barely usable.
Passengers arrive, announced by barking stray dogs that emerge from abandoned boats. Men and women, bound for the market across the river, stand on pieces of tin to avoid the sewage-wrecked water and step over piles of trash.
When the first boat is full, it leaves with a gentle wake. Most of the customers are regulars, crossing every day.
By Andrea Bruce, Washington Post Staff Photographer
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