Baghdad Metro
June 2009

by Chris Hondros

Iraqis like cars. They like to buy them. They like to talk about them after they buy them. And they of course like to drive them, very fast, on dangerous, winding roads hugging the Tigris River or on tank-pitted highways that cross barren stretches of scrub desert in Anbar province. They even like to wash them it seems, since every day in Baghdad you'll see men (invariably men) taking sponges to their vehicles all over town, swirling soap onto the sides and rinsing them off with long sprays of water from garden hoses.

© Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Waiting for a ride, passengers smoke before boarding the Baghdad Metro.
Baghdad is about as much of a driving city as any in the world. It was mostly built in the 20th century, designed with many broad boulevards and elevated expressways but with few sidewalks. It's sprawling and massive, but has no subway system or other public transit. Parking rules either don't exist or are not enforced, so parking is easy (unless you leave a car too close to a barricaded government building or U.S. field base, in which case it's likely to have been sliced into pieces by a bomb squad by the time you come back). Iraqis drive everywhere.

All this is strange because there was a time when Iraqis had few new cars – up until 2003, in fact, the year of the U.S. invasion and the start of the occupation. Before then trade sanctions under the Saddam government and high import duties kept many modern cars out of the country, so Iraqis made do with what they had, usually old beat-up Japanese hatchbacks lovingly kept running by clever and indefatigable local mechanics. Traffic in Baghdad was light: you could cross the whole metropolis from end to end in 20 minutes or so.

© Chris Hondros/Getty Images
All aboard: A man boards the Baghdad Metro, the Iraqi capital's first commuter train line.
But in 2003, all this changed almost overnight. Suddenly there was no government to pay import fees or taxes to, so dealers in neighboring countries started trucking in thousands of late-model cars for the now duty-free Iraqi market. Private ownership of new cars exploded. Meanwhile the U.S. government was busy creating a Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad and sealing it off from all civilian vehicles, thus severing many crucial highway arteries Iraqis had relied on for decades to get around town quickly. The result was, of course, predictable: massive, mind-numbing traffic jams, traffic that transformed quick jaunts around town into frustrating all-day affairs.

A few months ago I was back in Baghdad and was in fact sitting in one of these traffic clogs with my long-serving Iraqi driver, Rashid, as we made our way back to the office after a long day of work. Rashid was telling me in his broken English about how glad he was to have returned to his house in the southern suburb of Dora that he and his family had fled due to ethnic violence in 2005. Services were starting to return to his area including even train service from his neighborhood.

© Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A commuting Iraqi woman smiles aboard the Baghdad Metro.
"A train? Where does it go?" I said in surprise.

"Yes, from Dora to Baghdad center. And then in the afternoon it returns back. It's called Baghdad Metro for the workers who go to jobs in that area. You have these in America, yes?"

"In some places."

"What do you call it in English?"

“Commuter rail."

"Like, Russian people?"

"That's communist. Not the same. When does this train leave in the morning?"

"Very early."

So as dawn broke the next morning on a sleepy platform in Dora, we stood in silence next to a stately old train. We arrived too early; even the conductor hadn't shown up yet, so we stood alone for half an hour in the morning chill and used the time to look over the railcars. They were old ones, painted in 1960ish hues of green and yellow. The moniker IRR (Iraqi Republic Railways) was emblazed on each, the state-run railway that evolved from tracks laid by German engineers in the late days of the Ottoman Empire. As we were nosing around, eventually passengers and staff began to arrive and quickly boarded the train. Before long a whistle whined and the Baghdad Metro was off.

© Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A conductor watches the scenery whiz by aboard the new Baghdad Metro, the city's first commuter train line.
About 30 passengers were making the trip, a cross section of urban Iraqi society: professional men in suits, more traditionally dressed ones in dishdashas, a few teenagers toting backpacks, four educated women in colorful headscarves who all sat together and immediately launched into an animated conversation. The train chugged its way right through Baghdad's crowded center, sometimes crossing busy highways. Baghdad's drivers are used to the unexpected; it's not unusual to take a freeway onramp and suddenly find oneself heading straight towards a roaring convoy of American 60-ton Abrams battle tanks. But trains are more novel than tanks in Baghdad and people in cars often gaped and smiled as the train wound its way across traffic. Children in front seats bounced around gleefully and waved.

The train was making good time through a trash-strewn industrial zone when it suddenly slowed near a bullet-pocked freeway overpass. One of the teenagers bade goodbye to his friends and hopped off even before the train had fully stopped and started heading down the road. The conductor laid on the steam and we were moving again.

"What was that all about?" I asked Rashid, who was sticking close to me and serving as my translator.

"The boy lives near here so they stop for him to get out," he said.

"You mean they'll stop the train if you ask?" I asked, wide-eyed.

"Yes. Do they not stop the train when you ask in New York?"

"Generally, no."

Before long we arrived at the train's final destination of Central Station, Baghdad's rail hub. Everyone filed out, smiling as they started their day. I found a sharply-dressed railway manager in the station and asked him through Rashid how long the Baghdad Metro had been operating.

"Since October of last year," the manager said, waving a cigarette around as he talked. "But at first we kept it quiet, to not encourage attacks. Now we feel it is safer." Nonetheless, I had noticed that a security guard casually toting a Kalishnikov had been assigned to each car. Baghdad is safer than before but not out of the woods yet.

I thanked him and Rashid and left the station and got into the car of another of our drivers who had come to pick us up. We exchanged greetings and headed out, gingerly wading into the mass of honking cars for the long drive back to the office. All around us the chaotic mass of Baghdad swirled, the ebb and flow of a city on the move, trying to put itself back together after six long years of tragedy and horror. The Baghdad Metro is a step in this long journey, a step toward normalcy in a place that for years has known anything but.

© Chris Hondros

Chris Hondros was born in 1970 in New York to immigrant Greek and German parents, both survivors of World War II, and moved to North Carolina as a child. After taking a Masters degree from the School of Visual Communications at Ohio, Hondros returned to New York in 1998 to concentrate on international reporting. He's covered most of the world's major conflicts since the late 1990s, including wars in Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the West Bank, Iraq, and Liberia. He is a senior staff photographer for Getty Images, and his work frequently is published in the leading newspapers and magazines of the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Hondros has received dozens of awards, including multiple honors from World Press Photo in Amsterdam, the Pictures of the Year Competition, and the John Faber Award from the Overseas Press Club. In 2004 Hondros was a Nominated Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Spot News Photography for his work in Liberia, and in 2006 he won the Robert Capa Gold Medal, war photography's highest honor, for his work in Iraq. In addition to his photography, Hondros is a frequent essayist on issues of war.

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