Iraqi National Symphony conductor Karim Wasfi fights ISIS with music

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Story highlights

  • In his Music for Peace campaign, Wasfi has serenaded the dead at more than a dozen bombing sites since April
  • As terrorist attacks aim to disrupt everyday life and peace of mind in Iraq, his goal is to reclaim the space
  • With his cello music, Wasfi wants to win back the bruised hearts of the living and strengthen their will to go on

(CNN)A bustling market is in moments a mass grave.

To the inhabitants of east Baghdad, Iraq, this decor of charred vehicles and fallen structures after a bomb blast is an all-too-common sight.
It's a constant reminder by ISIS that death is imminent.
    But then, a burst of an impassioned music wakes the residents from their dreary routine. Passersby who faced a bomb attack hours before turn their heads in confusion to see what is disrupting this mournful time.
    Then at once, they're mystified by the sight of famed Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra conductor Karim Wasfi perched on scorched debris, trembling his mop of jet-black hair with Beethoven-like earnest as he drives his bow across his cello.
    "These streets would still have the wreckage of the previous incident and maybe some horrific scenes, and even ... the smell of death," Wasfi says, describing his morbid stage.
    He plays a vibrato, weeping tone -- a passage of "Baghdad Mourning Melancholy," a classical piece he composed.
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    People walking in the Mansour district, known in better times for its elite social clubs, stop short, one by one, and listen.
    Their bewilderment melts into intrigue. A crowd forms. Cell phones come out and record. People hug each other. Smiles break across faces, and an occasional tear streams down this face or that.
    People move closer to Wasfi and closer together. For the duration of the song, they are connected and elevated from the horrors that afflict them.
    "They went beyond their confusion, and they united through the sound of the cello and the sound of music," says Wasfi.
    This is what the maestro intended all along, when a fanatic robbed them of life with an explosives-laden car.

    It became a campaign

    That was Wasfi's very first bombing aftermath performance, and it went viral when his dear friend Ammar al-Shahbander posted it online.
    Weeks later, a bomb took Shahbander's life.
    The next day, Wasfi dressed in a white suit and played at that site, too.
    And he kept on.
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    It became a campaign that Wasfi calls Music for Peace. He has serenaded the dead at more than a dozen bombing sites since April.
    To him, terror attacks kill some instantly but imprison far more of the living.
    ISIS' targets are indiscriminate: good friends catching up at a cafe, or a child buying a block of ice to cool off on a hot summer day.
    Its goal is to attack everyday life and peace of mind. His is to reclaim the space.
    Wasfi goes to the sites of their deaths to play his countersong, to win back the bruised hearts of the living and strengthen their will to go on.
    It helped 18-year-old Mustafa Abdel-Jabbar.
    "Our nerves are pulled (tight), we're not relaxed," he said. "We're scared of being attacked by the Islamic State, Daesh, or we're going to go out and get killed by an explosion."
    Abdel-Jabbar discovered Wasfi on his way to school. His head was down and eyes were fixed on the destruction that blocked his path.
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    Then, he heard a sound that was very out of place, and he rubbed his ears in disbelief. He turned his head to see Wasfi in formal attire amid the wreckage.
    Abdel-Jabbar quickly embraced his message.
    After looking up Wasfi online, he decided to enroll as a student at Wasfi's Peace for Art Center, where he sings and plays the violin.
    "Of course terrorism threatens us with explosions and weapons and killing, and we answer it with music," he said.

    Changing lives

    Wasfi said he witnessed the impact of the music when he played it for 53 children, who were making their home in a Baghdad mosque after ISIS displaced them from Ramadi and Falluja.
    "The kids knew nothing but tanks" and Islamic battle cries, said Wasfi.
    He played Bach's "Suite No. 1 in G major" as the children sat, huddled around him. They asked who's Bach and wanted to touch the horse hair on his bow.
    By Wasfi's third visit, it was a different story.
    The children, who were first shoving one another to grab at his cello, were instead engaged in discussions about the reason stars shine, the similarities in the Abrahamic religions and how the acceptance of others is a choice.
    Music to his ears.
    In the town of Karrada, there is another war scar -- one slow to heal after a bomb killed more than 50 people and injured 100 others.
    Wasfi went there recently to play.
    The ruins look nearly as they did seven years ago. The rubble has not yet been cleared.
    Armed with a bow and cello, Wasfi faces his latest challenge.
    Playing his crescendo louder, he hopes to conquer despair once again.