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Baghdad Parks Crew Perseveres

Naem Balboul, 64, right, and other Baghdad city workers plant saplings and re-sod grass. The city is spending more than $56 million to bring more turf and green to the war-torn capital.

Jaafar Hamid al-Ali is parks superintendent in Baghdad, Iraq. Assisting him are 1,500 very brave Iraqis who are planting turf, trees and color to improve the city's battered landscape. Attacks last year killed close to 30 workers.

Ali and his team are opposed by an arid climate, salty soil and violence that never seems to end. But every fallen worker is a martyr in the struggle to beautify Baghdad, parks chief Ali said.

Jaafar Hamid al-Ali, Baghdad parks supervisor, visits a greenhouse nursery at Zawraa Park in January. Bombings and other attacks killed 30 of his workers in 2006. "My principle is, for every drop of Iraqi blood, we must plant something green," he says.

The Parks Superintendent

Ali, 62, arrived well-dressed for an interview with Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers. He's a French-educated former professor who can recount by memory the history of parks in Iraq.

Ottoman rulers established the first official public parks, some of which remained open well into the 1920s, Ali said. In the 1930s, the Baghdad city council built a few more parks and for the next four decades worked toward a goal of allotting 160 square feet of green space for each resident. By the 1970s, they'd reached 85 square feet per person.

By the time Anglo-American forces invaded in 2003, there were just 5 square feet of park space for each Baghdad resident. Acacias and tall date palms still lined many avenues in the capital -- until insurgents fired on troops from the brush.

Occupation troops razed acres of palm groves, Ali said, partly for security and partly to widen the passageways for their hulking armored personnel carriers. Airport Road, once one of the loveliest of thoroughfares, remains a barren ribbon of knee-high palm stumps.

"We had big hopes of restoring greenery to Baghdad right after the fall of [Saddam]," Ali said. "Unfortunately, the friendly forces contributed to destroying what very little was left."

A Passion to Restore

Ali had written off parks work as futile and had become a successful businessmen and a member of the Mansour neighborhood council. Yet he couldn't shake thoughts of his boyhood home, with a courtyard in the middle. His father tended the family's grapevines, flowers and fruit trees. The fragrance still wafts through Ali's memory.

In 2004, he succumbed to his passion, took a pay cut and signed a contract to become supervisor of Baghdad parks. The task seemed ludicrous to many Iraqis living in the throes of war, but he couldn't bear to see his city hidden behind blast walls and coils of concertina wire. The gray, bullet-scarred tableau gnaws at the soul, he said, and makes war seem permanent.

"This," he declared, "is the right time for flowers."

Still, the obstacles are myriad. At the Zawraa Park nursery, just opposite from a military recruiting center that's a favored target for bombers, workers said they frequently pick bullets and shrapnel from their fragile cuttings. Explosions have shattered the office windows three times in recent months.

For now, the fruits of the parks department's labor are visible mostly in relatively safe Shiite Muslim neighborhoods such as Karrada and Shoala. That's changing, Ali promised, with a new campaign that targets the predominantly Sunni western side of the capital known as Karkh.

Ali beamed as he recounted how parks employees have slipped into the dangerous Doura and Mansour districts armed with seeds that one day will blossom into vibrant gerbera.

"It's like stealing," he said. "When we see nobody is around, we run in, plant and escape. You see, when you have the will, anything is possible."

Source: McClatchy Newspapers

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October 15, 2019, 10:21 pm PDT

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