BAGHDAD — There's a place in this city, amid the snarled checkpoints and mazes of blast walls and general anxiety, where families still gather for picnics, teenage boys kick around soccer balls, young couples canoodle furtively under trees and children bury their faces in cotton candy.
Zawra Park, a sprawling, 250-acre public park in central Baghdad, is one of the few open spaces left in the capital. It's seeing a resurgence of visitors, thanks to improved security in central Baghdad, even as car bombings and mortar attacks continue to strike just a few blocks away.
"I come to Zawra because it's the only place we have in Baghdad," said Anas Abo Yousif, a 27-year-old taxi driver who brought his wife and two children to the park on a recent, sun-baked Saturday afternoon.
Sitting in the shade of a padlocked, rundown pavilion and sipping on a soda, Yousif acknowledged that the park had seen better days. Opened in 1973 by the city of Baghdad, Zawra was a showpiece under Saddam Hussein's regime, a place where tens of thousands gathered for expos, flower shows and holiday fairs.
But after five years of war — though the park has been spared any direct attacks — the grass has grown patchy, the paint has peeled off the jungle gyms and the water fountains have run dry.
"I have nice memories about Zawra during the former regime," Yousif said. "It used to be crowded with people, but now? Because people keep thinking about the security situation."
The U.S. military has helped to refurbish the park, spending $2.5 million over the past two years to upgrade restrooms, sewage, security equipment and other facilities — primarily in a small, 17-acre zoo housing a small collection of animals. The work was done by Army soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, which is responsible for security in the section of the city that includes the park.
Slowly, Zawra is coming back to life. During the Eid al Adha religious festivities late last year, when the park offered free tickets to the zoo and the few carnival-style rides, officials said that hundreds of thousands of visitors passed through the gates.
"The number of the visitors increased in the past few weeks as security became better," said park director Adil Salman Mousa. "The park is basically the best place for Iraqi families to go."
At the park entrance, a large brick gate and hand-painted murals greet visitors — along with a tangle of concertina wire. Uniformed security guards inspect vehicles for explosives and frisk every visitor.
Once inside, the conflict immediately feels farther away.
A paved walkway fringed by palm trees guides visitors to the center of the park. Along either side of the walkway, vendors hawk soccer balls, badminton racquets, kites emblazoned with the Iraqi flag and floppy sun hats in a rainbow of colors. There are snacks for sale, too, such as Pepsis and Lay's potato chips.
Parents stood in line with their children at the Ferris wheel. No one appeared to flinch when two American military helicopters buzzed overhead.
In years past, families would remain in the park until late into the evening, especially in spring and the summer months when temperatures can top 90 degrees even at dusk. Nowadays, even though the curfew in Baghdad has been pushed back to midnight, families leave much earlier to ensure they get home safely.
Basim Mohammed, a 35-year-old engineer, said that before the war he would stay in Zawra until 9 p.m. or later. Spread out on a blanket with his wife and three children, he said that his family doesn't take such chances now.
"If we stay until 7 or 8 p.m. taxi drivers would refuse to go inside our neighborhood," said Mohammed, who lives in a southern district in Baghdad, Shurta, where Iraqi security forces clashed with Shiite Muslim militias last month. The fighting forced the neighborhood to be sealed off for four days.
The clashes spread to a nearby neighborhood where Khalid Waleed Ahmed lives. The 24-year-old often visited a popular park in that area, but it has been closed for much of the war due to the fighting.
"There were many parks before the collapse of the Saddam regime," Ahmed said as he dug into a picnic of roasted chicken and flatbread with a half-dozen relatives. "But they are closed, so now I come here."
(McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report; Hammoudi is also a special correspondent.)