Iraq is a divided country haunted by violence. A political solution seems a long way off. On UN World Peace Day, 21 September, Baghdad hosts the City of Peace Carnival – a major event. According to its organisers, it attracted around 15,000 in 2015 and 23,000 people last year. In 2016, 500 volunteers contributed to make it happen.
The spectators span all generations and ethnic groups. Broadcasted live on TV and radio, the event features music and dance performances, play areas for children, art and craft stalls and discussion groups. Everything is put together by hundreds of young organisers in months of hard work. Qayssar Alwardii is one of them. He says: “The Peace Carnival is a symbol of hope, especially for young people.”
The idea for the carnival was born a few years ago when a group of young activists googled images of their city. Every picture that came up was of war or destruction. Determined to create new images of their city, the activists founded the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival.
The event was launched on a small stage in Al-Zora Park in 2011. Young bands played traditional Iraqi music, and young artisans sold arts and crafts at small stalls. The three-hour event was organised by 30 volunteers and attended by around 300 visitors.
“Many people say it’s crazy to celebrate peace in the current situation. They ask: ‘What peace?’” But Alwardii and his fellow campaigners will not be discouraged. They see peace as more than the absence of armed violence. Peace, to them, is a life marked by fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression and movement, and with peaceful interaction in society. The carnival is supposed to promote this notion: “Our dream is to make the city of Baghdad a better place and help to create a better society for future generations.”
The event itself is not the only thing that matters. The young people are aware of the months of preparation uniting them for a common goal. They want to build a better society and promote a more peaceful way of life. Their engagement starts on a small scale – getting volunteers to cooperate – and ranges up to active participation in social affairs.
“The volunteer meetings strengthen social cohesion, which is very important for our society,” Alwardii explains. “There is a lot of resentment between people of different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in Iraq. We teach young people to respect one another.”
In the youngsters’ lives there are only few settings in which girls and boys come together on equal terms. The volunteer meetings are one such setting. The media team – which was led by Alwardii last year, was made up of an equal number of girls and boys. The volunteers need to work hard to secure parents’ permission. “Parents often come along to the first meetings because they are worried,” Alwardii reports. “We talk to them on those occasions. Fortunately we manage to persuade most of them to let their children get involved.”
The organisers, moreover, want to establish a new culture of responsibility. “In Iraq, people like to stay in the same job – whether they are in business or politics,” Alwardii says. At the peace carnival, things are different, and participants must assume new responsibilities. A new organising team is put together each year, and anyone who worked in the coordinating team the year before can only take part in an advisory capacity. “The idea is to show young people the benefits of reassigning roles. After a few years, you have a whole new generation of carnival organisers.”
The carnival has also given rise to a number of youth groups, which are active throughout the year. They include small associations, bands and breakdance collectives but also social action groups. For example, one group was formed by medical students who demand improvements of public health care.
The carnival volunteers have gained a strong voice in civil society. They use their event to raise awareness of society issues. The Baghdad carnival has a different motto each year. In 2014, when growing numbers of refugees fled ISIS and came to the city from the civil-war zones and neighbouring provinces, the motto was: “Peace begins with rights for the internally displaced people (IDPs).” Alwardii recalls: “We wanted to help displaced people because they receive no care and attention.” During the carnival preparations, the organisers looked for sponsors and raised money for IDPs.
In 2015, they continued in the same vein, promoting peaceful coexistence with the slogan “Peace begins with our diversity.” The point was to convince people that diversity is the solution, not the problem. “We have lived in a mixed society for decades,” says Alwardii, “the real problem is how to accommodate so many more people in one single city.”
In 2016, the motto was: “Youths are future leaders.” The point was to emphasise the view of young people in regard to creating opportunities and fostering development. Alwardii says that the young generation must have an “unstoppable, unique power”.
Today, the City of Peace Carnival can even rely on government backing. In 2014, the youngsters received an official offer of support from the ministry for youth and sport. Iraq, it seems, has moved on since the days when politicians took a sceptical view of any kind of youth movement. Alwardii reports: “They were afraid because youth protests triggered the Arab spring in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. But we showed them that we do not want to protest – we simply take matters into our own hands.”
For a number of years, the City of Peace Carnival has only been funded by small non-governmental organisations. The event now has private sponsors, including a major telecommunications company and famous restaurants, but it still is organised exclusively by volunteers. For many of them, the commitment has paid career dividends. The band Project 904 performed at the first carnival and now has a regular slot on daily social media news. It is known nationwide. Other volunteers have found jobs with international organisations or major telecommunications companies. Their experience impressed recruiters.
“Being a City of Peace Carnival volunteer has become a recommendation for employers,” Alwardii reports. He himself works as a professional for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN agency. At the age of at 25 years, he is by far the youngest member of his team. “My colleagues appreciate my experience.” He also volunteers for the UN Development Programme. “To work for the UN, you need a good CV and good contacts. I acquired all that over the last four years at the City of Peace Carnival.”
The organisers of the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival wish to network with peace activists in other countries and they welcome support. Anyone interested is invited to contact Qayssar Alwardii: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eva-Maria Verfürth is a member of D+C’s editorial team.
Baghdad City of Peace Carnival:
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