With a girlfriend in Damascus, a mother and two brothers in Abu Dhabi, cousins in Amman and an uncle in Finland, Internet chats are the only way Baghdad merchant Hussein Karim can keep up with his widely dispersed family.
"I couldn't do without instant messaging," Karim told AFP in his small mobile phone kiosk adorned with a misspelt sign in English "Enter for Mobaile" in Baghdad's inner Karrada neighbourhood.
Advertisement"I chat with my girlfriend and family every day. I am addicted to it," said Karim, his hair slicked-back and his upper lip brushed with a slight moustache.
Telephone calls are expensive and unreliable, said the 22-year-old graduate in German language, who makes around 400 dollars a month selling mobile phones to an ever-diminishing customer base.
The UNHCR estimates four million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US invasion of 2003. Two million have moved to other parts of Iraq and the rest abroad, mainly to Syria and Jordan. Thousands more are leaving their homes every day.
According to the latest estimates -- from two years ago -- there are 36,000 Internet users in Iraq. These don't take into account the thousands who visit cyber cafes across the country every day to chat with friends, do research, cyber-flirt or find marriage partners.
"Iraqis everywhere are keeping in touch with each other through the Internet," said Laith Lutfi, owner of the Baghdad Centre for Internet in the capital's Karrada Meriam suburb.
"Most of our customers come here to chat or to Skype," said the 23-year-old computer engineering student, referring to a programme that allows users to make telephone calls from their computer to other users free of charge.
With the nightly curfew now coming into effect at midnight instead of 11 pm, he is able to keep his small operation with its nine computer terminals open later than ever, Lutfi said from beneath a cap turned backwards.
That is good news for those with relatives living in distant time zones, such as Australia, the United States and Canada.
"After 10 at night I get many people who come here to chat or Skype with their relations in the United States," said Lutfi, who charges 2,000 dinar (about 1.60 dollars) an hour for Internet access.
High school teacher Rajaa Abdul Rahman, in her early 30s and newly graduated with a doctorate in Arabic language, keeps in touch with her parents and sister in Ramadi, capital of Iraq's western Anbar province, through instant messaging.
"The telephones don't work and so the only way to maintain contact is through the Internet," she said from behind one of the little wooden cubicles Lutfi has built to separate his workstations, her head covered by a red hijab.
"I speak to my family once a week, sometimes more. We use chat," added Rahman, perspiring lightly despite the ceiling fans in the sweltering cafe.
Next to her a slightly built man named Ahmed, an agriculturalist, was researching information on pesticides while chatting with a relative in Bahrain.
His neighbour, a burly man named Salam who has a government job, was also doing research but said he was forcing himself to focus on the task at hand instead of chatting.
"I have so many relatives abroad that I could chat all day and in fact I used to. Now I limit it to just two or three times a week. Chatting is a big benefit but also a curse."
Lutfi says that he too gets to chat in between dealing with customers and scanning documents and passport pages for Iraqis seeking to join the exodus abroad.
"I just go on line and see whoever is there -- there is usually someone," he said with a grin.
Mobile phone merchant Karim is adamant he won't be leaving violent Baghdad, even though the demand for his phones is decreasing by the week and the struggle to survive is growing more and more demanding.
"The wealthier people are the ones who are leaving. A year ago I used to sell three or four phones a day, now I sell only that many in a week."
But he feels a moral obligation to stay on -- he is the sole member of his family left in Baghdad and believes it would be wrong to leave.
Because of his fluency in German he did apply last year for a German visa but was rejected.
He has also proposed to his girlfriend but her parents refused the match -- mainly, he says, because of his determination to stay in war-wracked Iraq.
His mother, meanwhile, is nagging him to come to Abu Dhabi.
"Every time I speak with her she cries and begs me to join her and my brothers. It is difficult. Sometimes I prefer not to chat."
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