Baghdad’s once-bustling markets, overflowing with fruit and vegetables, live animals and books, are facing difficult times as customers increasingly fearful of bomb attacks stay away.
“Every day is worse than the one before,” says Ali Hussein, a 32-year-old selling slippers and sandals from a stall outside the main Bab al-Sharqi market, in one of central Baghdad’s oldest neighborhoods on the east bank of the Tigris River.
“Before, when you worked on Fridays, it used to be a lot better. You made a good living and could afford to buy more things for your children,“ he adds.
“But now it is very bad, and day by day things are getting worse,” because of the multiple bomb attacks in the city, he says.
On Wednesday 71 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when a dozen car bombs exploded across the capital, while a day later a bomb ripped through a fruit and vegetable market in Samarra, north of Baghdad, killing 16 people.
Wednesday’s violence was claimed by an Al-Qaeda front group, and comes amid a surge in nationwide violence that has left more than 3,700 people dead already this year, sparking worries the country is edging towards the all-out bloodshed that plagued it in 2006 and 2007.
“When going to work I say goodbye to my family as if I might not see them again and then I just count on God,” says Hussein, explaining how he copes with the fear of being caught up in an explosion.
It is a similar scene at Mutanabi Street, home to Baghdad’s famed book market, which on Fridays used to be packed with customers thumbing through all manner of publications, from well-worn Arabic classics to Western comic books.
The street, less than a kilometer (a little more than half a mile) in length, is often the scene of poetry readings and lively discussions.
But Haithim al-Shimmari, 38, sees few customers these days.
“The day after an explosion, we notice it is a lot quieter” with only a few customers, he says.
“For the past two months now there have been very few families coming here,” he says pointing to a pedestrian street in the center of town where the only customers appear to be men.
Government security measures, including police checkpoints and roadblocks, aimed at stopping the attacks are also snarling traffic and making it difficult for people to get around, says Shimmari.
“It takes me about one-and-a-half to two and a half hours to get to work, and after one pm all the markets close because of the situation," he says.
Mutanabi Street is itself no stranger to violence -- on March 5, 2007, a suicide bomber detonated his truck rigged with explosives there, killing more than 30 people and wounding at least 60, devastating the street's historic bookstores and coffee shops.
But it recovered, and before the spike in violence that began at the beginning of the year, was again a popular haven on Fridays.
“On this street, shops used to be open until 9 pm at this time of the year, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” Shimmari says of the current situation. “Everyone just works for a few hours a day now.”
Back at Baab al-Sharqi, shoe seller Saad al-Saadi, agrees that business is down. But he says people still venture out, despite the bombings, to go shopping or to work normally, arguing that Baghdad’s residents are largely inured to the violence.
“When there is an explosion, people still go out the next day. It has become normal to experience explosions,” the 40-year-old says.
With his back to the street where a car bomb could be parked at any time, Saadi acknowledges fear but says “it is normal to live with it,” adding that he reads a few verses every day from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, before leaving for work.
“But I feel I have to go to work because otherwise how would I feed my children?” he asks.