Iraq’s ‘hero’ tuk tuk drivers are not allowed to participate in anti-government protests

Iraq’s tuk-tuk taxis have long been a symbol of the anti-government demonstrations that have gripped the country since October 25, 2019. The tuk-tuks regularly enter protest sites to evacuate injured people, but the Iraqi government is cracking down on their involvement.

Driving bans in certain cities and being the target of arbitrary police stops, tuk-tuk drivers say they are being unfairly attacked by the authorities.

Iraq’s tuk-tuk drivers came into the spotlight in October 2019 when they joined anti-government demonstrations in major cities across the country.

These drivers use their vehicles to evacuate injured protesters and take them to hospitals. Unlike ambulances, the three-wheeled vehicles can cut their way through heaving crowds and get injured people out more quickly. They have become heroes of the protests, with music videos celebrating them and protesters even starting a newspaper named after them.

However, the authorities have curtailed their presence in recent months by forbidding them to attend demonstrations.

During a protest in Baghdad on May 25, two protesters were shot and killed and dozens more injured. Ali (not his real name), 25 years old, is a tuk-tuk driver. He could not come to the square to help the injured. He spoke to us about his frustration at the time.

No tuk-tuk could reach Tahrir Square. All access to it was blocked by security forces. It’s really frustrating. Many tuk-tuk drivers think the government has taken these measures as revenge for us who support the October Revolution [Editor’s note: the anti-government demonstrations across Iraq that began in October 2019].

A tuk-tuk driver stopped at a checkpoint on his way to Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where a protest was staged on May 25 to call for the government’s resignation. Photo taken by one of our observers. © Observers

The first time they imposed restrictions was in July 2020. Authorities in Baghdad and some other cities such as Basra announced that from now on, no more tuk-tuks would be allowed into the city center because drivers had no official. to allow.

Until October 2020, the authorities took fees into account. Most of the time, we could get the permission needed to go to protests and evacuate the injured.

Video filmed by a tuk-tuk driver on October 25, 2020, with police officers at a Baghdad checkpoint preventing him from entering Tahrir Square.

But since the beginning of the year, they have strictly forbidden us to go into the city center even when there are no demonstrations. Worse still, in recent months, police have confiscated several tuk-tuks saying their documentation was not in order.

We’ve organized a few protests, mainly in April this year and back in July 2020, but the authorities are not flinching.

‘Many academics do this work because they cannot find work anywhere else’

According to our observer, nearly 18,000 tuk-tuks operate in Baghdad. While a study by the International Monetary Fund estimates that the unemployment rate among young Iraqis was a staggering 40% in 2018, many tuk tuk drivers have turned to the government to help them find work in a variety of fields.

Our observer Ali continues:

The tuk-tuks are a lifeline for young people in Iraq. There are many university graduates who do this job because they cannot find work anywhere else. We are harassed by the authorities and sometimes beaten up by the police.

Tuk-tuk drivers have done so much to support the protests calling for an end to corruption in Iraq. And they paid the price. Since the beginning of the demonstrations, security forces have set fire to tuk-tuks. As the crowds began to gather, right at the start of the movement in October 2019, tuk-tuk drivers became the target of snipers. even while they were evacuating the injured. Some even died.

Video showing tuk-tuks going to Tahrir Square to evacuate protesters fleeing smoke bombs fired by security forces. Video published October 26, 2019.

In November 2019, during a demonstration in Baghdad, a driver was burned alive after police launched a smoke bomb on his tuk-tuk. His name was Ahmed Adel Ellami.

 

A poster commemorating Ahmed Adel Ellami, the tuk-tuk driver who was killed in Baghdad in November 2019 after security forces hit his vehicle with a smoke bomb that started a fire in his vehicle. Below the burnt remains of his tuk-tuk.

Our involvement in the October 2019 movement was not just limited to evacuating the wounded. We also organized visits to the families of protesters who died, to comfort them and provide our support. We also offered free trips to religious sites during pilgrimages.

 

On August 14, 2020, a group of tuk-tuk drivers visit a family whose son died in a protest against the government.

Tuk-tuk drivers will be offering free rides to the site of the Shia saint Moussa al-Kazim, in Baghdad on April 8, 2021.

We have the same demands as the protesters: an end to corruption, tougher regulations on weapons in circulation and serious investigations into the hitmen who are killing the anti-government activists.

As for the measures being taken against tuk tuk drivers, the government should offer us an alternative, another job, if they want us to stop. If there is no alternative, they must make us work in peace.

The anti-government movement that started on October 25, 2019 was mainly led by students. They call for an end to endemic corruption and the abolition of the country’s political system to distribute jobs based on religious beliefs and ethnicity. The protesters also want to end Iran’s influence on the country.

Security forces have led a bloody crackdown on the movement using bullets to disperse protesters, particularly in Baghdad’s symbolic Tahrir Square. Between October 2019 and January 20, 2020, the international NGO Amnesty International registered 600 deaths.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2021. But after several targeted assassinations of activists, many high-profile politicians are calling for a boycott.

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