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After 5 Years Of War, Trains Return To Baghdad

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After 5 Years Of War, Trains Return To Baghdad

Iraq

After 5 Years Of War, Trains Return To Baghdad

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's a sound that, after five years of war, has finally returned to Baghdad.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

MONTAGNE: That train whistle is a powerful signal that things are getting somewhat back to normal in the Iraqi capital. For NPR Baghdad reporter Isra al-Rubei'i, it's also brought back fond memories.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

ISRA AL-RUBEI'I: The whistle of the overnight train from the southern city of Basra pierces the morning silence of Baghdad. Clutching the hand of his little daughter, (unintelligible) rushes through the station (unintelligible) that's sending a cloud of black smoke into the air.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) I want her to experience that overwhelming feeling that I had when my father first took me on a train trip.

AL-RUBEI'I: (unintelligible), one thing that unites them is a love of train travel, a joy that they were denied for years because of violence and (unintelligible). But thanks to a relative improvement in the security situation and low ticket prices, Baghdad's blue-domed railway station is bustling again.

Mohammed Ali Hashim is in charge of the railway station.

Mr. MOHAMMED ALI HASHIM (In Charge of Baghdad Railway Station): (Foreign language spoken)

AL-RUBEI'I: Hashim says there are plans to upgrade Iraq's rail network for both passengers and cargo, but that will take both time and money. We need four to $5 million in emergency aid, he says, just to keep functioning at minimum capacity.

(Soundbite of train)

AL-RUBEI'I: But lack of services and the volatile security situation could not deter Natiq Mahmoud(ph), 57, a local poet, from taking the train in pursuit of a bigger space to meditate and write his verse, just as he used to do in his youth.

Mr. NATIQ MAHMOUD (Poet, Baghdad, Iraq): (Through translator) When you take the train, you recall your childhood, your youth. You pick up a pen and put down your thoughts on paper.

AL-RUBEI'I: The Baghdad station was built by a British firm in 1953. The blue dome and the marble floor give an air of the colonial era, but there are also signs of another era. In the 1980s, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers etched their names into the cement benches before making their one-way trip to the battlefront with Iran.

(Soundbite of train)

AL-RUBEI'I: Fifty-one-year-old Jamal Abdullah(ph) has been a train engineer for 34 years.

(Soundbite of foot falls)

AL-RUBEI'I: Walking along the dusty platform, he points to an abandoned train, which he says he drove all the way from war-ravaged Basra to Baghdad to transport dead and wounded soldiers. He says the moans of the living and the smell of blood linger in his memory.

Mr. JAMAL ABDULLAH (Train Engineer, Baghdad, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

AL-RUBEI'I: Paradox is only a few meters away, the luxuriously furnished train that Saddam Hussein kept for himself and his entourage. After the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam, looters ripped off the curtains, got away with the gold-plated toilets and destroyed the train's lavish swimming pool, but fortunately left the engine intact.

Saddam's train has now been refurbished and is expected to return to service once the rail line to Turkey is restored.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

AL-RUBEI'I: At 10:00 o'clock a.m., the train from Basra enters the station and disgorges its weary passengers after the 12-hour journey. At 10:30, there's one more whistle from the Basra train before it leaves the platform on the return journey.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

AL-RUBEI'I: As it picks up speed, (unintelligible) and his daughter wave goodbye, and the poet reaches for his pen.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

AL-RUBEI'I: And in the cabin of the locomotive, the driver starts to sing "Muhammad and the Train," a song that most Iraqis memorize as children.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

AL-RUBEI'I: (unintelligible), and so does the driver's voice, taking with it a memory of past that is there no more.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

AL-RUBEI'I: Isra al-Rubei'i, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Isra worked in NPR's Baghdad bureau for nearly five years. She's now at Stanford University as a John S. Knight International Journalism Fellow. She had production help from her colleague, Kalit al-Jalili(ph).

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