Unseen Iraq

Unseen Iraq: In Baghdad, a Trip to Nowhere

(Andrea Bruce)
By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, December 29, 2008

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 backdoor 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 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. The sit far from one another, 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 worst 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.

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, http://visit blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company