In Baghdad, a Trip to Nowhere



(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

At 5:30 a.m., everything is dark at the Baghdad Central Station. There are no passengers about, and most of the gates are still locked. The morning train, the only working train, leaves the station with a deep, heavy rhythm that vibrates through the six passenger cars. Only the engine has electricity. There are no lights.

Five minutes down the line, the train cuts through a neighborhood powered by generators. Wiping away fog from a window in the first passenger car, Razaq Saleh, 54, watches back-door house lights pass by slowly and tunes his portable radio. He stretches the antenna, bends it to the left and listens for a routine morning broadcast -- a man intoning the words of the Koran.

"We get about 10 passengers a day," says Saleh, the traffic manager, a title he says he has had for 32 years. "I think they will end this train. There is no profit."

Baghdad's first-ever local commuter train started running in October, giving residents an alternative to roadblocks, checkpoints, overwhelming traffic and roadside bombs. It travels 15 miles through southern and western Baghdad, making two round trips a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. A ticket costs about 75 cents.

As the train picks up speed, Saleh's shadow passes through the cavernous car. The conductor and a security guard join him, avoiding seats next to cracked, broken or shot-out windows that are wet from the rain.

A soft morning haze hangs over bean fields and mosques, checkpoints and lanes of traffic. Stray dogs give chase. A man in an open market skins sheep.

The conductor stands up, blows a whistle and smacks the backs of the empty seats.

"Wake up! Wake up!" he shouts to imaginary passengers. They are approaching the Dora stop, the turnaround point at the end of the line.

Finally, some passengers board the train. Five of them. They sit far from each other, low in their seats. Without an announcement, the train pulls forward, heading back to the heart of the city.

Suddenly, it jumps to a stop, yanking the passengers from their seats. The whole train leans slightly, as if sinking. It has derailed. The guard leaves the car, carrying three guns. They are in the worst part of Dora, Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood.

The travelers jump down unassisted to uneven ground. They are quiet and seem only slightly annoyed, as if they never expected the train to work in the first place.

Schoolchildren walk over the tracks in front of them. The passengers join them, making their way to the main street, looking for another way to work.

By Andrea Bruce, Washington Post Staff Photographer

By Liz Heron  |  December 29, 2008; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Baghdad
Previous: In Baghdad, a Pause for Beauty |

Comments

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Andrea Bruce is the best journalist reporting out of Iraq right now for the Post. Her photos and stories capture the essence of the place and are important reading.

Posted by: maralu | December 29, 2008 6:24 AM

Many of these posts are like poems.

I have, for a few years now, read the blogs of Iraqis and researched the country for a film about Iraqi refugees, and Andrea Bruce's articles and photographs are the most insightful and touching I have found anywhere about everyday life in Iraq.

We hear many story from the immigrants about what they have witnessed and endured, but Andrea's piece about the morgue really helped me to begin to form images of the horror and its aftermath.

Posted by: alex858 | December 29, 2008 7:16 AM

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