Countless bombings in Baghdad’s Karrada since 2003 US-led invasion
BAGHDAD - It had become something they just had to do: whenever the main shopping street in Baghdad's Karrada district was bombed, Hussein al-Fatlawi and his brother would rush to help.
When the Islamic State jihadist group set off a car bomb on Karrada Dakhil street shortly before midnight on September 5, 24-year-old Hussein was halfway up the stairs to his flat.
"I was about to reach my home when I heard the explosion... I pulled out my phone and called my brother Ali to get him to meet me so we could run to help the victims," he said.
Ali, 26, did not pick up and Hussein had a bad feeling. Instead of going to the bomb site, he started searching for his brother and eventually found him at the morgue, dead.
Ali and Hussein had been among the first to reach the nearby site of a July attack, the bloodiest to ever hit Baghdad, that killed at least 323 people.
The massive blast set fire to two shopping arcades on either side of Karrada's busy thoroughfare, burning many people alive.
The 40-day mourning period is over and the charred bomb site is being cleaned. But everyone in the neighbourhood knew at least one, sometimes many, of those killed and Karrada is still in shock.
"We used to rush out as soon as we heard a bombing and head to the site to help out with transporting the dead and wounded to hospital," said Hussam, the Fatlawi brothers' uncle.
"Since these bombings started, Ali felt a lot of empathy for the victims. Whenever there was a blast, he and his brother were always the first among the volunteers," he said.
- Countless bombings -
A busy shopping area on the east bank of the Tigris River, Karrada has seen countless bombings since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Karrada Dakhil is a favourite spot for many Baghdadis to go for coffee or shop with friends and family, but also a prized target for the Islamic State group's seemingly endless supply of bombs.
There were phases, before IS swept through Iraq and tried to set up its Islamic "caliphate", during which several large bombings would rock Baghdad every day.
On the street, the number of times a cafe or restaurant has been destroyed in bombings is almost part of its pedigree.
Many people avoid the terraces of Karrada during periods of perceived heightened risk, such as major holidays or weekend nights.
But after the tragedy of the July bombing, some made a point of showing they would not be cowed into submission and went about their business as usual.
The authorities recently turned to a type of US-made vehicle scanner on Karrada Dakhil to further secure the area.
That was done partly in response to a public outcry over the continued use of the infamous "magic wands", fake hand-held bomb detectors sold to Iraq by a British conman who was jailed for fraud three years ago.
In late August, an attractive cafe-cum-bookshop offering espresso and iced coffee was inaugurated with a concert. Ahmed Saadawi, Iraq's rising literary star, also read from his latest novel.
- Days away from departure -
"This is great for young people who want a place that isn't noisy, where you can speak freely, buy books and drink coffee," said Muhannad al-Husseini, 25.
"Karrada is bouncing back, especially now that they've cleared the site of the bombing and re-opened the street."
Another bombing, the one in which Ali al-Fatlawi was killed, rocked the neighbourhood a week later and the main street was closed to traffic again.
Saeed Alaa Adel, 27, sitting in the same newly opened cafe, said the latest IS bombing was predictable and argued residents' resilience would be tested again.
"It's very nice to see people getting on with their lives, and I hope more will turn to these kind of cultural activities," he said.
"But government and parliament are part of the problems that cause terrorism, and until that changes, we should be prepared for the next bombing."
Despite his dedication to his neighbourhood and readiness to help bomb victims, Ali al-Fatlawi likely harboured similar feelings and had recently focused his hopes on exile.
When he was killed, he was days away from moving to the United States.
Having briefly worked for a US private security company, his application for emigration had just been approved.
"His dream was to have children and it was about to come true in America," his father Hassan said, sitting in their Karrada home, choking back tears.
Ali had been married for five years, but he and his wife had been unable to have children and were eager to try medically assisted procedures in the US.