Baghdad, 2 July 2004 (RFE/RL) – "I have three possibilities for how to spend my free time," says Muhammad, a teenager from the Mansur area in Baghdad. "To go to an Internet cafe, to go and play billiards, or to do nothing -- just sit in the darkness -- when the electricity is down."
Schools are closed for summer in Iraq and many teenagers are left with a lot of free time but few ways to spend it. Some play football in dusty lots surrounded by heaps of debris. Others sell cigarettes, soda, or gasoline. Many others -- particularly those in poor neighborhoods like the Shi'a area of Al-Sadr City -- are spending their time at the mosque.
Abbas Abd al-Wahad is 18 years old and is selling tickets for a car park not far from the city center. He told RFE/RL he doesn't like his job, which keeps him under the sun all day as the temperatures soar toward 50 degrees.
Abbas said he feels dead and alive at the same time. He is young, he said, and he wants the same things all young people want -- the chance to spend time at a sports club or disco, the chance to meet girls his age. But none of that is possible in Baghdad.
"We are young people,” he said. “What do we want? We want clubs, we want sport clubs, we want billiards, something cheap. If we had a disco where you could express yourself, [it would be good], but there are people who won't let you have this. What can you do with this situation?"
He said religious groups object to discos. Several years ago there were discos in the Sheraton and Meridian hotels, but they were eventually barred by Saddam Hussein. Now, the hotels are occupied by foreigners and guarded by coalition troops. He said he has no idea if the discos have returned, but even if they have, these places are no longer accessible for him and his friends.
Abbas said the present situation in Baghdad is bad. The constant violence that has Iraqis on edge extends to the city's youth as well. Any minute, Abbas said, a car might explode or gunfire will break out.
"People go to pray. My life might end any time, and there is nothing better to do than to pray. It is our religion, what can we do? We have nothing more than that."
"Now, we don't feel relaxed. No security; there are explosions. We feel an explosion might take place anywhere. You can't go out of your house. We cannot go out and stay out longer than 11 o'clock [in the evening]. Before, we used to stay out until three or four o'clock in the morning," he said.
Those days of the past were secure, Abbas said, but they were no more interesting than now. Saddam Hussein did little to make life in Iraq pleasurable for his citizens, particularly the young people. "During Saddam's rule, there were no terrorists with bombs. The security was good, nobody was able to put a bomb anywhere. But I can tell you, [Hussein] only succeeded in security. In all other issues he has destroyed Iraq," Abbas said.
Abbas said that young Iraqis, thanks to Hussein, are now afraid to live. The only thing left in life, he said, is going to the mosque and praying. "People go to pray. My life might end any time, and there is nothing better to do than to pray. It is our religion, what can we do? We have nothing more than that," he said.
Muhammad Jasim is a father in his forties. He told RFE/RL his two children spend nearly the entire day at home, because it's the only way he can keep them safe. "I bought a used computer for $200, so they either play computer games the whole day or watch TV," Jasim said. "I am tired of looking at them sitting at those screens, but I can offer them little more. Once a week we take them to the market, buy some sweets or cheap toys, but then we quickly go back home."
Fourteen-year-old Ziyad is selling cigarettes and mineral water on the street near a local mosque. He said he usually spends his free time in or near his home, cleaning or shopping for his parents, or simply sitting and doing nothing.
"It's especially bad when the electricity shuts down in the evening," Ziyad said. "It's not only impossible to do anything because of the heat, but there's simply nothing to do -- even the TV doesn't work. So we do nothing, absolutely nothing."
Ziyad said he sometimes goes to an Internet cafe, to chat with online users elsewhere. Other times he plays billiards. But both take money -- something that Ziyad, a heavy smoker, said does not leave him enough even for cigarettes.
Ziyad has never been to Europe. But he said he has seen Western programs on television and wishes he could have the life of the people he sees on TV. "It is different and better in Europe -- you have security, money to support yourself, and the clubs are nicer," he said. "Europe is very nice from what we see on TV, but I have never been there, no. It's nicer than Iraq."
He said many young people see no future for themselves in Iraq and dream of leaving the country.