Mass Graves Dug to Deal With Death Toll

BAQUBA — The largest morgue in Diyala province is overflowing daily. Officials told IPS they have had to dig mass graves to dispose of bodies.

More and more bodies of victims of the ongoing violence are being found every day in Baquba, capital city of the province, 50km northeast of Baghdad.

“The morgue receives an average of four or five bodies everyday,” Nima Jima’a, a morgue official, told IPS. “Many more are dropped in rivers and farms — or it is sometimes the case they are buried by their killers for other reasons. The number we record here is only a fraction of those killed.”

Ambulances, now able to move again after weeks of restrictions, have been removing bodies of victims from the current fighting. But they have also found skulls and bones, evidence of other killings long ago.

Dealing with these remains is becoming difficult. Like the rest of the city, the morgue suffers from continuing lack of electricity. Over the last two weeks, two of its refrigerators have been shut down. The smell of decomposing bodies hits visitors 100 metres away.

Morgue officials told IPS that a local U.S. military commander recently ordered them to bury all bodies within three days.

“We got 30 bodies out of the refrigerator on Sunday, put a number on each, and put them in plastic bags provided by U.S. troops,” morgue official Kareem al-Rubaee told IPS. “We asked families to have a look at the bodies. Then, they were buried collectively.”

There is expected to be a need now to bury bodies collectively every 15-20 days in order keep the capacity of the refrigerator intact, al-Rubaee said.

Families are often unable to identify and collect the bodies, morgue officials say. It is still extremely dangerous to travel around the city. Also, most bodies are never brought to the morgue at all to be identified or counted.

Many victims of U.S. air strikes have been buried under the rubble of their homes for days, sometimes weeks, residents say. The military operation has been launched to target al-Qaeda, amid local reports that the operation began after the al-Qaeda suspects had fled town.

People in the town feel targeted by killings from all sides. Foreign terror groups, like those who claim to be following the model of al-Qaeda, have kidnapped many people who are never heard from again.

Groups believed to be al-Qaeda have been known to kill and then drop the body in selected places that they call “the execution zone.” This is intended to show people the power of al-Qaeda.

Police vehicles and ambulances have been moving bodies mainly from such spots to the morgue.

Baquba, never anticipating such a death toll, has only a small morgue, and limited means to carry out necessary procedures.

“When a number of bodies are brought to the morgue, we take at least two photos from different angles,” Mohammed Abid, another official at the morgue told IPS. “Generally, the bodies are brought without identity cards. This is a problem for the families for whom the photographs are not enough — faces are often deformed due to torture or shooting.”

The refrigerators at the morgue are packed beyond capacity, and workers narrate grisly accounts of attempts to access the bodies for identification.

“My brother’s photo is in the computer, but we couldn’t get the body because it was taken by another family,” 52-year-old primary schoolteacher Naser Sattar told IPS. “They thought him their son because the body was deformed.”

The schoolteacher added, “I went to that family and got my brother’s body and then buried it.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)