BAGHDAD (Reuters Life!) - Lingering violence and raw sewage in the water are no deterrents for a group of wealthy, young Iraqis who spend their free time jet-skiing along the Tigris river in a burst of white foam and spray.
Unfazed by reports that everything from chemical waste to bodies are dumped into the river, young men in life vests zoom through the muddy waters as curious bystanders on the banks look on. Speedboats and the occasional water-skier also swish by.
“We impatiently wait for the weekend to practice our hobby,” said Saad Haqi. “It is a nice hobby — not new in the world but perhaps new in Iraq. It attracts lots of young people.”
A falloff in attacks triggered by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has encouraged Iraqis to return to their sporting passions. For those who can afford it, jet-skiing has emerged as escapism from the remaining violence and scars of sectarian bloodshed.
In the evening, youth jet-ski to the backdrop of a warm ochre sunset framed by date palm trees on the river banks — a scene that seems more out of a romantic movie than dusk in what remains one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
Many Iraqis seem eager to join the jet-skiing ranks.
“I think I will sell my car to buy a jet ski to practice this hobby,” said one woman in gold-rimmed sunglasses, who would only give her name as Fadiya.
“The reality we live in is 100 percent different from the spirit of this place, but what can we do? People come to this place to get away from an atmosphere of explosions.”
The jet-skiers say they first took up the sport in 2004 but quickly stopped when post-invasion violence flared into sectarian bloodletting and trigger-happy U.S. and Iraqi troops or police prevented any recreational activity on the Tigris.
Rampant kidnapping and sporadic shootings continue in Baghdad but jet-skiers returned after bombings decreased.
Now, the jet-skiers make sure they observe a three-day mourning period of no skiing after each major explosion in the city, said Khalid al-Nuaimi, who leads the jet-ski group.
“How can we have fun and ski when our brothers die in explosions?” he said.
Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Paul Casciato