Iraqis recapture thrills at rusting amusement park

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The Independent Online

All they want to do is have some fun. Their home town has been bombed, invaded and occupied by foreigners, looted and turned into a battlefield for a guerrilla war. Anyone would need to blow off steam after eight months living in the cross-hairs of other people's guns.

So what do the good citizenry of Baghdad do? A relaxing massage, perhaps? Group counselling about post-traumatic stress syndrome? Soothing poetry readings on the banks of the Tigris? Not in this steel-nerved city.

Raw fun here is as elusive as Saddam Hussein himself. Nights are no-go zones. Clubs, discos, cinemas either do not exist or are choked with cobwebs, waiting to be unlocked when ­ or rather, if ­ better days dawn.

So when 16,000 Iraqis went in search of their kicks to celebrate the Eid-al-Fitr holidays yesterday, they went to the fair. And they did so in a manner that was almost as frightening as the conflict they were trying to forget.

The longest queues in the weed-choked Baghdad Amusement Park were for white-knuckle rides on a rust-bitten roller-coaster. But plenty of people also wanted to be whizzed like eggs in a blender in a centrifugal machine.

Some blasted tiny dangling plastic figures with air rifles ­ which is odd, given that every householder has at least one Kalashnikov and knows how to use it, and odder still when you think that people in these parts should by now be weary of gunfire. Others chose to have the dregs of their war-frazzled adrenal glands pumped dry by a ride on a Victorian-era ghost train.

"This is a different type of scariness," explained Razzak Araim, the general manager of the amusement park, when asked why so many Iraqis would want to frighten themselves some more. When the park, now privately run, was built in 1963, it was the first in the Middle East and the pride of Baghdad. It was here that families would gather for feast days during the Saddam Hussein era.

But yesterday, the place was packed with lean young lads in ugly new stripy Turkish-made shirts. Such fashion statements were, said Wissam Fadr, a 19-year-old mechanic, impossible under Saddam.

But the merry-go-round and flying pink pig rides were doing no business at all. It was not a family day. Mr Araim, armed with a walkie-talkie, was escorting one of the few groups of women and children. People in post-Saddam Baghdad were "ruder than before", he complained. "They don't respect any rules. This is how they understand the meaning of our freedom."

Like many Iraqis, he was no fan of the occupation forces, who yesterday flew a Cobra helicopter low over the park. "If people took over your country, what would you feel? Would you feel free?" Whether freedom has any meaning at all for Baghdad's women is open to doubt.

We were still negotiating our way over the mud bath at the park's entrance when the police opened fire in the air with the AK-47s. They said they were intercepting an attempt by a man to abduct a girl. According to a security guard, Kamel Abu Haider, it was the third such attack in two days. The wave of kidnappings that followed the fall of Baghdad has ebbed but is still going on.

More than seven months after President George Bush joyously implored Iraq to "let the good times roll", Baghdad was trying its best. But, as every funster scaring himself witless on the roller-coaster surely knew, the bad times are not yet over.