A man holds a sign that reads “Iraq is my religion, my sect, my nationality, my tribe and my party… But how is it not my homeland?” in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, November 2019. Courtesy of the author's dear friend Mero A.

On Oct. 1, 2019, thousands of protesters filled Baghdad’s Tahrir Square (or Liberation Square), sparking a nationwide movement now known as the Tishreen Uprising (or October Uprising). Initially protesting against state corruption, high unemployment and the lack of basic services, these protesters later expressed greater aspirations in the form of a slogan: “We want a homeland.” Short, yet powerful, the slogan reflects Iraqis’ desire for a country that they can truly call a homeland — one free of sectarian divisions, foreign influence and ceaseless conflict.

In response to protesters’ demands, the Iraqi government displayed immense brutality. State security forces used tear gas and live ammunition against demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them, and paramilitary groups began their campaign of abducting and assassinating activists, journalists and other critics of Iraq’s ruling parties. Due to these crackdowns against the uprising, at least 700 protestors and 35 activists were killed, yet close to none of their murderers have been held accountable.

Eighteen years since the United States invaded Iraq under the pretext of liberating the country, freedom is yet to be seen. The same parties that rose to power in Iraq through the U.S.-led occupation — which now ironically claim to resist the U.S. — mirror the former Ba’athist regime in their justification and enactment of oppression, similarly cracking down on opponents under the guise of ensuring national security. Ruling parties’ violent reaction to peaceful protests exposes their cowardice and lack of legitimacy, as they are only able to maintain their hegemony through force. 

Protesters and activists face constant harassment, threats and false accusations of being agents hired by foreign powers and the former regime. In reality, the majority of them are Iraqi youth no longer able to endure the dire conditions that have existed for generations. The widening wealth gap between regular citizens and post-invasion elites is indisputable. As these rulers reside in palaces in gated areas, everyday Iraqis live in despair, struggling to make ends meet in crumbling slums under the control of repressive militia groups.

The stories of youth protesters Mohammed al-Mokhtar, 20, and Ramon Rayan, 16, capture experiences familiar to Iraqis today. Although from a relatively wealthy family, al-Mokhtar was not spared from the struggles of post-invasion Iraq. When he was seven years old, he witnessed the killing of his school principal after gunmen raided his classroom. Over a decade later, injustice continued to impact his life, as he could not secure a job in a country where nepotism and bribes dominate employment sectors.

At the other end of the economic spectrum was Rayan, who was forced to work low-paying jobs to support his family. Throughout his life, he witnessed extremist groups detain his father and the violent displacement of his family from the northern city of Mosul due to their Christian faith five years after. As a consequence of their conditions, al-Mokhtar and Rayan joined the Tishreen Uprising with hopes of saving their country. However, on February 25, 2020, their lives would be cut short, ending their dreams of a liberated Iraq. Security forces fired a tear gas canister into al-Mokhtar’s face, killing him instantly. Nearby, Rayan was found dead after his body was hit by shrapnel from another device.

Although tragic, the experiences of Mohammed al-Mokhtar and Ramon Rayan are not rarities. These are merely the stories of two out of hundreds of protesters killed since October 2019. Each demonstrator has their own story of indescribable distress and trauma, but also resilience.

Despite dire conditions and violent attempts to suppress the movement, the Tishreen Uprising provided Iraqis with a sense of optimism for the first time in decades. 

In the words of Fatima Awad, a then-16-year-old protester, “Before, we did not have a future, and no one would protest because everyone was scared. Now, we’re all gathered at Tahrir Square.”

The “Wall of Wishes” near Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, December 2019. Courtesy of the author’s dear friend Hiba D.

Throughout protest squares, people created wishing walls and murals depicting their ideal image of a homeland they had been robbed of by the ruling elite, militia groups and foreign powers. People from all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups could be found in Tahrir Square chanting in opposition to their government and other states, namely the U.S. and Iran. Long-oppressed groups, including women and ethnic minorities, found acceptance within the movement, demonstrating national and group-specific grievances they had held for decades, such as gender violence and socioeconomic discrimination. In essence, the square became everything contemporary Iraq is not: a place of acceptance, free expression and national unity.

Although participation has decreased, the Tishreen Uprising has not ceased. If anything, it has transcended being a mere protest movement, as activists have formed political parties and even won seats in the 2021 parliamentary elections. Young Iraqis can still be found protesting in city centers, resisting the same ruling parties and ruination. They are not ready to give up on their nation that they wish to see liberated from the chains of oppression.

Two years since protesters flooded Tahrir Square, Iraqis still want a homeland.

MiC Columnist Neil Joseph Nakkash can be reached at nakkashn@umich.edu.