Iraq’s ‘hero’ tuk-tuk drivers banned from joining anti-government protests

Screen capture showing tuk-tuk drivers gathering at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, June 14, 2020.
Screen capture showing tuk-tuk drivers gathering at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, June 14, 2020. © Youtube

Iraq’s tuk-tuk taxis have long been a symbol of the anti-government demonstrations gripping the country since October 25, 2019. The tuk-tuks regularly enter protest sites to evacuate injured people, but the Iraqi government is cracking down on their involvement. Banned from driving in certain cities and targetted by random police checks, tuk-tuk drivers say that they’re being unfairly targeted by the authorities.

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Iraq’s tuk-tuk drivers came into the limelight in October 2019 when they joined anti-government demonstrations in major cities around the country. These drivers use their vehicles to evacuate injured protesters and take them to hospitals. Unlike ambulances, the three-wheeled vehicles can cut a path through heaving crowds and get injured people out more quickly. They’ve become heroes of the protests, with music videos celebrating them and protesters even starting a newspaper named after them.

tuktuk
tuktuk © Youtube

Video showing tuk-tuks going to Tahrir Square in Baghdad on June 14, 2020.  

However, the authorities have clamped down on their presence over the past few months, banning them from attending demonstrations.

During a protest on May 25 in Baghdad, two protesters were shot and killed and dozens more injured. Ali (not his real name), 25 years old, is a tuk-tuk driver. He wasn’t able to get to the square to help the injured. He spoke to us about his frustration at the time.

No tuk-tuk was able to get to Tahrir Square. Every access to it was blocked by security forces. It’s really frustrating. Lots of tuk-tuk drivers think that the government has taken these measures as revenge for us supporting the October Revolution [Editor's note: the anti-government demonstrations across Iraq that began in October 2019].

A tuk-tuk driver stopped at a checkpoint on his way to Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where a protest was organised on May 25 to call for the government’s resignation. Photo taken by one of our Observers.
A tuk-tuk driver stopped at a checkpoint on his way to Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where a protest was organised on May 25 to call for the government’s resignation. Photo taken by one of our Observers. © Observers

The first time they imposed restrictions was in July 2020. The authorities in Baghdad and some other towns like Basra announced that, from now on, no tuk-tuks would be allowed into the city centre, on the grounds that drivers did not have an official permit.

Up until October 2020, the authorities made allowances. We were usually able to get the authorisation needed to go to protests and evacuate the injured.

tuktuk
tuktuk © Youtube

Video filmed by a tuk-tuk driver on October 25, 2020, showing police officers at a checkpoint in Baghdad stopping him from entering Tahrir Square.  

But since the beginning of the year, they’ve strictly banned us from going into the city centre, even when there aren’t any demonstrations. Worse than that, over the last few months, the police have seized several tuk-tuks, saying that their documentation wasn’t in order.

We organised a few protests, mainly in April this year and back in July 2020, but the authorities aren’t budging.

'Lots of university graduates do this job because they can’t find work elsewhere'

According to our Observer, almost 18,000 tuk-tuks operate in Baghdad. While a study by the International Monetary Fund estimates that the rate of unemployment amongst young Iraqis was as much as 40% in 2018, many tuk-tuk drivers have called on the government to help them find work in different fields.

Our Observer Ali continues: 

The tuk-tuks are a lifeline for young people in Iraq. There are lots of university graduates who do this job because they can’t find work elsewhere. We’re harassed by the authorities and sometimes beaten up by police.

Tuk-tuk drivers have done so much to support the protests calling for an end to corruption in Iraq. And they’ve paid the price. Since the demonstrations began, security forces have set tuk-tuks on fire. When crowds started gathering, right at the beginning of the movement in October 2019, tuk-tuk drivers were targeted by snipers. even while they were evacuating the injured. Some even died.

Video showing tuk-tuks heading to Tahrir Square to evacuate protesters fleeing from smoke bombs set off by security forces. Video published on October 26, 2019.

In November 2019, during a demonstration in Baghdad, a driver was burnt alive after the police launched a smoke bomb at his tuk-tuk. His name was Ahmed Adel Ellami.

tuktuk.
tuktuk. © Youtube

A poster in commemoration of Ahmed Adel Ellami, the tuk-tuk driver who was killed in Baghdad in November 2019, after security forces hit his vehicle with a smoke bomb that started a fire in his vehicle. Below, the burnt remains of his tuk-tuk.  

Our involvement in the October 2019 movement wasn’t just limited to evacuating the injured. We also organised visits to the families of protesters who had been killed, to comfort them and offer our support. We also offered free trips to religious sites during pilgrimages.

tuk-tuk
tuk-tuk © Youtube

On August 14, 2020, a group of tuk-tuk drivers visit a family whose son died during an anti-government protest.  

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tuk-tuk © Youtube

Tuk-tuk drivers offer free trips to the site of the Shi’ite saint Moussa al-Kazim, in Baghdad on April 8, 2021.  

We have the same demands as the protesters: an end to corruption, stricter regulation on guns that are in circulation, and serious investigations into the assassins killing the activists who are opposed to the government. As for the measures taken against tuk-tuk drivers, the government should offer us an alternative, a different job, if they want us to stop doing this one. If there’s no alternative, then they should let us work in peace.

>> Read more on the Observers: Iraqi activists go underground after wave of attacks by pro-Iran militias

The anti-government movement that began on October 25, 2019 has been led mostly by students. They're calling for an end to endemic corruption as well as the abolition of the country’s political system of handing out jobs according to religious beliefs and ethnicity. The protesters also want an end to Iran’s influence over the country.

Security forces have led a bloody crackdown against the movement, using live bullets to disperse protesters, particularly in the symbolic Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Just between October 2019 and 20 January 2020, the international NGO Amnesty International recorded 600 deaths.

Legislative elections are due to take place in October 2021. But after several targeted assassinations of activists, many high-profile politicians are calling for a boycott.