In Iraq, artist Dhikra Sarsam commits to human rights

She arrives on her bike, despite the stifling heat that crushes Baghdad this May afternoon. Dhikra Sarsam always travels on two wheels, even when the thermometer flirts with 50 C˚. The “Bourj Babel Foundation for the Development of Arts and Media”, of which she is co-director, is located in one of the old buildings along the Tigris River, near the historic center of Baghdad.

Behind the thick wooden gate, colorful works of art and posters of civil rights protests adorn the wall. Artistic engagement and political activism go hand in hand, as in Dhikra Sarsam. Born in Baghdad, graduated in visual arts from the Institute of Fine Arts in the capital, she began her activism with her fellow students.

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In 2003, they organized one of the first art exhibitions in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2005, they supported the elections and campaigned for freedom of speech, collaborating with international organizations: quickly, it was no longer just a question of supporting art, but also democracy.

Identify the victims

In 2005, then 2011 and 2015, Dhikra Sarsam manifests almost every week. As hostage-taking of journalist friends becomes more and more frequent, she closely follows each case by organizing press conferences and holding the authorities to account. ” Even today, we don’t know who was behind these kidnappings “, she says.

When anti-government protests erupted again in October 2019, Dhikra joined them in Tahrir Square, not far from Bourj Babel’s premises. Faced with fierce repression and threats from armed militiamen backed by neighboring Iran, she began in November 2019 to identify the victims, coordinating a team of Iraqi journalists.

We made a list of all the demonstrators and activists killed: 485 people during the first two months of the protest. We have collected their death certificates and are trying to pressure the government to move forward. », She explains. And then ? ” And then nothing “.

Stalled investigations

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had promised justice, but investigations have stalled. ” The government no longer responds to us “. Today, most of his activist friends have fled abroad. She herself has received anonymous threats on social media.

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I try to be more discreet when I put my posts on Facebook. But leaving Iraq would be difficult. People are counting on us, we got a fight “. Through the Internet, Dhikra is in contact with the other demonstrators. “ They are so young “, she says. ” And they want change without going into politics, without getting seats in parliament. I don’t want them to feel forced », Explains the fifty-year-old, referring to Bourj Babel.

With a clear gaze and calm voice, Dhikra is worried about the security conditions of the next demonstrations, scheduled for Tuesday, May 25: ” The militias target the participants one by one. But we believe in these protests, it’s the only way for change “.


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