Unseen Iraq

The Tigris, Abandoned by Fish

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, October 13, 2008

The wooden boats float on the edge of the Tigris River, bumping one another and making a deep, hollow sound -- the only sound on the river at 6 a.m. The sun lends a soft haze to the water, which reflects skyscrapers from the other side. Seven ferrymen sit in the back of their motorboats, quiet and comfortable in one another's company as they wait for customers to take across the river.

Six years ago, they were fishermen, not ferrymen. But now, in the Haifa Street neighborhood of Baghdad, sewage runs through the 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 men blame Syria and Iran, which also share the river basin, for the lack of fish. They suspect that the countries are holding back the Tigris's water supply. Others say there has been chronic overfishing, which the government has done nothing to stop.

Regardless, there aren't enough fish to pay even for fuel, Mahmoud says.

A single gunshot from a bridge disturbs the quiet but is barely acknowledged. Mahmoud exhales, a short laugh. His grandfather was also a ferryman, he says. Back then there were no bridges in Baghdad, and people floated across the river on used tires. 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 emerging from abandoned boats. Men and women, bound for the market across the river, stand on pieces of tin to avoid the filthy 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.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, visit http://blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company