BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Carved over the entrance to the General Post Office in New York City is this inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The postmen of Baghdad, however, braving war-scarred streets in their boxy yellow vans, live by another unofficial motto; come bullets, bombs or blast walls, the mail must get through.
“I consider the postmen to be mujahideen (holy warriors),” says the head of the Post and Savings Directorate, Safaadine Badr. “I call them that because they defy the bad security situation, like explosions, to deliver mail throughout Baghdad.”
In a city whose streets have been turned into killing fields by violence between Iraq’s majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs, and where water shortages, power cuts and fuel shortages are common, the postal system, incredibly, still works.
“I cover al-Saadoun, which is a dangerous area. One day shooting erupted. I hid until the firing stopped and then I continued delivering the post,” said Sameer Abbas, 44, a 25-year-veteran of the postal service.
“Usually I change my route every day, especially when I am carrying money,” said Abbas, who along with his colleagues is responsible for delivering phone bills and collecting payment.
A security crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi troops, who have set up scores of checkpoints and moved into combat outposts in Baghdad neighbourhoods, has helped to significantly reduce the number of roadside bombings and sectarian killings.
But sectarian militias still roam parts of the religiously mixed city of 7 million people and bombs are an ever-present threat to the postmen as they navigate through checkpoints and miles of concrete blast walls that have changed the face of Baghdad and sealed off sections of many streets.
“One of the main obstacles are the blocked roads and blast walls,” said Badr at his office in the Post and Savings Directorate, a squat compound of two two-storey buildings.
Another is simply finding the addressee on a letter or parcel.
The sectarian violence has caused a massive population shift in the city, forcing thousands of Shi’ites and Sunnis to flee mixed neighbourhoods for the safety of areas where their sect is in the majority, or to leave the capital altogether.
“Being a postman in Baghdad is not like in other countries. Houses don’t have postboxes, so you can spend hours trying to find the right house and then discover the person has left the address. With no postboxes we have to find a neighbour to give it to or put it under the door,” said postman Abbas.
The redrawing of the city map has led to “job swaps” in the postal directorate, with Shi’ite and Sunni employees switching places with colleagues in offices where their sect is dominant.
“Twenty-one employees have had to move from our post office. They were Shi’ites,” said Hayawi al-Azawi as he picked up a sack of post at the central sorting office. Azawi is manager of the post office in Abu Ghraib, a notoriously dangerous Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold.
Abu Ghraib, along with the volatile neighbourhoods of Tarmiya, Doura and Amiriya, is seen as too dangerous for postmen to venture into. Residents there are usually telephoned to collect their mail from the central post office.
Four of the city’s 72 post offices have been destroyed in violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said Badr. Only one postman in Baghdad is known to have been killed, in Amil in the southwest of the capital.
“Our job is definitely dangerous. There are explosions, we have to go into hot areas and then there are the checkpoints,” said Abu Mustafa, a postman in central Karrada district.
“But I never think of quitting. I have been doing this job for more than 20 years. Besides, I like my job.”
Additional reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit