“They said it was like magic.”
In Baghdad, families awoke to the first snow in more than a decade. In Mosul, 250 miles north, the riverbanks were dusted white, and snowfall shrouded mounds of rubble that still clog a sector of the old city pulverized during the fight against the Islamic State.
In both cities, the surprise weather stirred glee and offered a welcome respite from unpredictable political winds that have buffeted Iraq since youth protests were met with a deadly crackdown and President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad pushed the country to the brink of war.
While snow is more common in the mountains of Iraq’s northern regions, it is rare in the country’s center and south.
In Tahrir Square, a stronghold for Baghdad’s demonstrators, young men and women threw snowballs and drew anti-government slogans across the ground. It felt freezing inside the tents, but outside, it was “just like the movies,” said 24-year-old Ghaith Ali.
“It felt as if something great was happening, and we stayed outside even though it was freezing,” he said. “It was worth it.”
Photographs of the snowfall blanketed Iraqi social media channels. Several snowmen were dressed in traditional red and white kaffiyeh scarves, with captions joking that they were Iraqi tribesmen. “You are not melting before you are having lunch,” wrote one commenter, poking fun at the fact that in many parts of Iraq, leaving your hosts before a meal can be interpreted as a slight.
But while the unusual weather excited many Iraqis, it also deepened the hardship of hundreds thousands of civilians who have lost their homes in the fight against the Islamic State, or who are trying to outrun an intensifying battle between rebel fighters and forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.
“Being Swiss, I felt [at] home when I smelled snow this morning. But it quickly reminded me of the many displaced,” wrote Katharine Ritz, the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq. Across tents and unfinished shelters, she wrote, civilians “have no means to stay warm”.
According to the United Nations, more than 689,000 Syrians have been displaced by fighting in northwestern Syria over the past two months. Footage posted Friday by the Free Burma Rangers rescue group showed people battling to hold up collapsing tents during a fierce snowstorm in the northern Syrian city of Manbij.
Refugees were also struggling to keep snow out of their tents in the Lebanese town of Arsal, where local authorities have ordered Syrians to dismantle the makeshift homes they had constructed, on grounds they violate laws forbidding refugees from building solid structures.
The town was cut off by the storm, leaving refugees hungry.
“The situation is miserable!” cried a man in one video as he shoveled snow outside his tent in the blizzard. “We want bread! Open these roads! We want bread!” shouted another.
Snow covers the Syrian refugee camps in Arsal, Lebanon. In these camps, there’s the very bare minimum supplies to protect from the cold. Children are in danger of freezing to death. Every year this happens, and the UN still hasn’t made any progress to prevent this tragedy. #Syria pic.twitter.com/qeLtcwWlg4— Jennifer (@JennRollins1002) February 9, 2020
Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib avoided the worst of the snow, but temperatures there plunged as low as -8 degrees Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit), further punishing people forced to sleep outdoors because there are not enough tents.
“Snow can be fun, especially for children — but not for the 10s of 1000s of Syrian children fleeing the daily bombardments with nowhere to go,” wrote Amnesty International’s Donatella Rivera in a tweet. “The best they can hope to find is a flimsy tent which can’t protect them from the cold."
As Syria’s humanitarian crisis intensified, much of Iraq’s snow had disappeared by midday — melted in the sunshine or churned to muddy puddles on roadsides. In Tahrir Square, the protesters huddled together and said it was back to business as usual.
For Mustafa Ali’s 9-year-old daughter, it was as if a spell had been broken. “It’s like the air was electric, and now it’s normal again,” she told her father. “Will it ever happen again?”
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.