Wearing surgical masks, motorcycle helmets and clothes stained with blood and grime, they populate the protest barricades of Baghdad, chanting for the government to fall.
Young Iraqis have been out in their thousands since mass anti-government protests kicked off on Oct. 1 in the capital and then quickly spread to the country’s south.
More than 300 people have been killed as security forces have responded to the mostly peaceful demonstrations by firing live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters directly at the bodies of protesters.
“We are here demanding justice,” said Mohammad, a young protester who declined to give his last name. “I want justice for my brother who was killed on this bridge. I want justice for my friend who was killed here on this bridge.”
Mohammad, wearing an Iraqi flag as a face mask to protect against wafting tear gas, was standing under the Jumhuriya “Republic” – Bridge, where fierce confrontations with riot police have flared over the last three weeks.
Above him, hundreds of young men manned barricades made of concrete blocks, iron sheets and tires, locked in a stalemate with security forces directly across from them.
Nearby, medical volunteers like Rand Mohammad had set up volunteer medical clinics where they treat the wounded.
“We are here to help our brothers in the square,” she said of central Tahrir Square, where thousands have been gathered daily. “We have to stay here to achieve what we want. Peacefully. Even if it takes a long time.”
The protests have been dominated by young people, a generation blighted by rampant unemployment, a corruption-ridden political caste and years of armed conflict. Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many people languish in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, healthcare or education.
“I graduated top of my class at school, but no universities would accept me,” said 27-year-old Ahmed. “And even if you graduate from university, there are no jobs…Even if you want to work as a day laborer, you need a powerful connection now.”
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government has taken some measures to try to quell the unrest, the most complex challenge to the ruling elite since 2003. Gestures have included handouts to the poor and more job opportunities for college graduates.
But these have failed to keep pace with the growing demands of demonstrators who are now calling for an overhaul of Iraq’s sectarian power structure and the departure of leaders they regard as corrupt.
“We have nothing – no schools, no decent hospitals. No riches for the nation. Politicians only know how to steal – they steal from us,” said Mohammad Saeed Yasseen. “We have to get rid of these corrupt officials. Without that, there’s no solution.”
Incensed by the lackluster response from their leaders, protesters say they will stay on the streets until their demands are met.
“We young people are tired and things aren’t great: we have no jobs, we have no salaries,” said Hussein, a young protester who wore a spent tear-gas canister around his neck. “We’re not leaving – even if this lasts 40 years.”