Observers


On September 7, the families of people who died of Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic in Iraq were finally able to start recovering the bodies of their loved ones, who had been temporarily buried in a makeshift cemetery in the desert near Najaf. However, several families said their relatives were missing, while others were shocked and saddened to discover that their loved ones had not been buried in accordance with Islamic burial customs.

Many social media users in Iraq were shocked and outraged by videos filmed on September 10 and 11 in the Wadi Al Salam cemetery, near Najaf (about 160 kilometres south of Baghdad). The videos show angry families who came to exhume the bodies of their relatives who died of Covid-19 and were buried in this desert cemetery in late March and early April. The families obtained permission from health authorities to collect the bodies on September 7, after months of lobbying. They wanted to bury their loved ones in family plots or cemeteries closer to their homes.

The family of a Covid-19 victim from Basra filmed this video on September 11 in Wadi Al Salam cemetery. They wanted to transport his body to Amara (located about 265 km from Najaf). "We came with his identification number and his name. But we didn’t find him. We found someone else in the grave,” explains a relative standing off-camera at the start to the video.
This video, which was shared by a local Facebook page on September 14, garnered 18,000 views.
 
When their loved ones died of Covid-19 several months ago, these same families struggled to find a place to bury them. Locals refused to allow the Covid dead to be buried in nearby cemeteries because they were afraid that the bodies would transmit the virus. Some bodies remained in the morgues for weeks as families hunted desperately for a burial ground.

READ ON THE OBSERVERS >>> The search for a place to bury Iraq’s COVID-19 victims

The same video shows families using shovels to dig up graves, their bare feet in the sand. The person filming the video continues to narrate, showing a grave containing a coffin broken in two.

"Is this a correct burial? Would God accept such a burial?” he asks, indicating a shallow grave. 

“Between 125 and 150 bodies were delivered to the cemetery every day”

Cleric Sheikh Abu Ali Fatimi conducted burials of the Covid dead in Wadi Al Salam cemetery in June. He told us about his experience.
 
The first bodies buried in Wadi Al Salam had been kept for several days or even weeks in hospital morgues in the capital and other towns. 

The Ministry [of Health?] decided to bury the victims in body bags from the morgue and in the coffin that they were placed in at the hospital. That’s what it was like for the first few days. Just under 200 Covid-19 victims [Editor’s note: out of a total of 4,000] were buried in Wadi Al Salam under the instructions of the Ministry.

After the first wave, Hachd al-Châabi [Editor’s note: The “Popular Mobilization Forces”, a paramilitary coalition made up of Iraqi Shia militias formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq] asked the ministry to set up a wash house where the bodies could be cleaned and the Ministry accepted. 

At first, we were just washing the bodies of the men, who were then buried according to Islamic customs, wrapped in a shroud and without a coffin. Many women were buried in body bags until a team of women joined us a few weeks later to clean and take care of the female victims.
 
Sheikh Abu Ali and his fellow volunteers carry out funeral prayers in Wadi Al Salam cemetery in Najaf on June 9.
 
What you see in the videos are families exhuming their loved ones who were buried in coffins. Those were the very first Covid-19 victims buried in Wadi Al Salam. Some families (as you see in the videos) refused to believe that the body they had dug up belonged to their loved one and ended up exhuming other bodies looking for the “right” one. Others found a different person buried in the site where their loved one was meant to be. At least one family burned down a trailer belonging to the funeral services as a sign of protest. 
"The family of a victim had an argument with cemetery workers and burned down a trailer in Najaf. The family had exhumed the grave of their father (…) and discovered, instead, the body of a stranger in his place (…) They dug up three other graves but still didn’t find their dead father,” said this social media user. The incident occurred on September 11. The relatives were arrested and then released the same day. 
 
As for the issue with some families finding the “wrong” body in the “wrong” place, that could be explained by the fact that the teams who ran the burials were extremely understaffed. Each team had less than 20 people [Editor’s note: in accordance with health regulations].
They still managed to bury close to 1,500 bodies in just a few weeks. Every day, between 125 and 150 bodies would be delivered to the cemetery. We’d have to sterilize them and then wash them according to Islamic ritual. We’d wash the bodies, pray and bury them one after the other, sometimes from 4pm to 10am the next day. 
Families came to the Wadi Al Salam cemetery to exhume the bodies of their loved ones. They dug up the graves and removed the bodies of their relatives, still in body bags. 

“The families were devastated to see the decomposing bodies of their loved ones”

Ali Amiri, an activist from Najaf, went to the cemetery on September 12 in an attempt to calm the tensions as families exhumed their relatives. In his video, he asked families for "patience" and recommended that they wait to transport bodies “because the extreme heat and the tension don’t create an ideal [environment]".
I helped to exhume the bodies of seven of my extended family members who died of Covid-19 and transported them to Baghdad. When you go to the cemetery, you need to show a death certificate and sign a discharge. Cemetery officials only allow direct family members, including the parents, brothers or sisters, of a victim to get their body exhumed. The graves all have numbers and dates along with a note indicating which province the body came from. Even so, some of the bodies got mixed up. The volunteers made some mistakes, that happens. 
 
This man went to Wadi Al Salam on September 10. He was angry at Hachd al-Chaâbi for not having buried his brother in a shroud in accordance with Islamic custom. "He was buried in a shallow grave, only one metre deep, and buried face down. That’s not what Imam Ali’s Division promised [Editor’s note: the group that managed burials]."
 
Lots of families found it extremely difficult to see the bodies of their loved ones during the exhumation. Some people fainted when they saw the decomposing bodies [Editor’s note: Because embalming is banned in Islamic tradition, the bodies decompose very quickly because they are only wrapped in a shroud and buried directly in the earth] and have a very strong odor. 
It was a serious shock to many and some fled at the sight. That’s why members of local organizations asked the families to wait a bit longer before carrying out exhumations so that the bodies would dry out a bit and it would be easier to bring to the family plots. 

Hachd al-Chaâbi reported that all of the families ended up finding their deceased relatives. Others decided to wait, as recommended by the governor of Najaf. 
In this video posted on September 10 on the Wadi Al Salam’s Facebook page, the men in the first video said they had "finally found the body of their deceased father,” and thanked the volunteers who buried the victims. 
 

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Article written by Fatma Ben Hamad.