Call them the Tigris River boys.

Just about every morning this summer, 16-year-old Mohammed Taqi has dashed to the cool waters of the river, which flows through the heart of Baghdad.

That's when the temperature starts rising and it's already too warm (and boring) indoors.

On most days, he hops into a small boat with 14-year-old Leith Ahmed.


The two are best friends. And perhaps like most kids, they'd prefer playing football or basketball together in air-conditioned gyms and sports clubs.

But this is Iraq. They're from poor families and live in a neighbourhood with no such facilities. And just like millions of other people in this country stuck in the throes of conflict, they face hours-long power cuts at their homes each day.

So the boys improvise.

"We catch fish!" Mohammed said, sitting across from Leith in their tiny craft.

Sometimes, if they land a big-enough carp, they sell it on the street for about US$10, he said. But not before the heat tapers off at about sundown.

That's because Baghdad's streets are empty during the day as high temperatures across the region break records.

Parents mostly seem to spend their time sweating at home. But their kids can be seen blowing off steam in the Tigris, which roughly splits this city of seven million down the middle.

The 1850km-long river, along with the nearby Euphrates, gave sustenance to ancient Mesopotamians here. Back then, kids probably also saw the river as a kind of giant water park during the summer months.

And modern-day activities probably aren't all that different from thousands of years ago - exploring shoals for submerged treasures, playing hide-and-seek in reeds and racing from bank to bank, a swim dozens of metres long that is not for the faint of heart.

"Home is boring!" yelled Khaled Leith, 15, a portly teenager who seemed to enjoy body-slamming friends in the shallower areas of the river on a recent day.

He said he'd rather not spend time with his parents during the daylight hours. That's when the adults watch television news (if there's electricity, that is) about all the bad stuff happening in their country, such as religious strife and suicide bombings carried by Isis (Islamic State) extremists.

Essam Abbas, a scrawny 17-year-old, also prefers avoiding home from sunup to sundown. He stood on the shore quietly watching a gaggle of kids playing nearby. He seemed timid and even afraid to join in the horseplay.

Then, suddenly, he dashed into the river and came out clutching his prize: a small fish.
"Look! Look!" he yelled as the creature squirmed in his hand. The others seemed impressed with his show of skills.

Some, however, seem slightly annoyed by it all.

They're everywhere in the water. They just suddenly pop up in front of you


Bassem Neima, 35 and wearing a cowboy hat, is the captain of small vessel that shuttles people from bank to bank. Not only does he have to contend with heat, which that causes him to perspire profusely while he works, he said. He also has to keep an eye out for kids swimming in the path of boat.

He hasn't hit anyone yet, he said, but there have been close calls.

"They're everywhere in the water. They just suddenly pop up in front of you," Neima said.

As he powered his vessel, groups of children tread water nearby, their heads bobbing up and down. Their laughter echoed far and wide, but they were difficult to spot.

The garbage here certainly isn't. The river is full of it. Discarded cans. Soggy cardboard boxes. Shoes and socks.

Boys from wealthier parts of town generally avoid swimming in the river, probably because of the potential health hazards. The Tigris has a reputation for being polluted.

During the civil war years after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the stretch flowing through the capital even became a dumping ground for bodies, which often bore signs of torture.

Nowadays, though, the river is about the only place that friends like Mohammed and Leith have to pass the time in this hellish heat. And pass it here they do - every day, from morning to dusk, together.

"We are always here!" Mohammed exclaimed from the boat. Then he and Leith paddled off in search of fish.