The Ghoulish Culture Of Death In Iraq

Iraqis visit a grave at the part of the cemetery dedicated for unidentified dead in the Shiite holy cit of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 16, 2007. The sign reads, " cemetery for unidentified". The grim consequences of sudden and violent death have spawned their own macabre subculture: human vultures, anonymous graves with serial numbers and tattoo artists specializing in IDs to help families find remains amid bombing carnage. (AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani)
AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani
Abdullah Jassim expected ambulances and security forces to arrive first after a blast last month near his clothing shop. Instead, it was thieves.

"I saw them with my own eyes," said Jassim, who has survived a string of suicide bombings in Baghdad's well-known Shurja market. "Young men between 20 and 30 years old stole mobile phones, money and wrist watches from the dead and badly hurt."

The consequences of sudden and violent death — so commonplace in Iraq's relentless turmoil — have spawned their own macabre subcultures: the human vultures, grave markers with serial numbers for unidentified victims, tattoo artists asked to etch IDs on people afraid of becoming an unclaimed body amid the carnage and killings.

It's more than just another grim tableau in a nation brimming with sad stories. It points to how deeply war and sectarian bloodshed have reordered the way Iraqis live — and confront the constant possibility of death.

"As a society, we are finished," said Jassim, whose store is only several dozen yards from the site of a car bomb that killed at least 127 people and wounded 148 on April 18. "We may have hit rock bottom."

The black banners hoisted on street corners to announce a death have markedly increased since sectarian violence intensified after the February 2006 bombing by Sunni militants of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Estimates of civilian deaths since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion vary widely — from 62,000 by the private Iraq Body Count group to as many as 600,000 in a study published last year by the respected British medical journal The Lancet — but the figures alone can't fully explain how Iraqis have learned to treat death in different ways.

Even mourners are alert for attack. Suicide bombers have targeted the funeral tents traditionally used by families to receive relatives, friends and neighbors.

That same fear keeps relatives from going to cemeteries to bury their dead or, in some cases, even publicizing the victim's name.

Stories making the rounds in Baghdad speak of relatives receiving calls from the mobile phones of loved ones who were missing, with callers claiming to hold them hostage and demanding ransom. When the money is delivered, the families are told their relatives are dead.

A top police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said authorities were aware of looting at bombing sites and the use of stolen mobile phones to collect ransoms from families. He blamed organized criminal gangs.

Fadil Abu Semidiah, an undertaker from the holy Shiite city of Najaf, recalls a teenage boy who recently came with his family to the city's vast cemetery to bury his father — a victim of a Baghdad bombing.

As the father was being laid to rest before him, the son's mobile phone rang. The screen showed the number of his father's missing telephone. The caller did not say anything, but it was enough to unglue the boy.

"The boy became hysterical," said Abu Semidiah, 56. "He kept shouting, 'My father is alive! My father is alive!"'

The cemeteries in Najaf and Karbala, another holy Shiite city south of Baghdad, have for centuries been used exclusively by Shiites to bury their dead.

Now, they are being used to bury both Sunni and Shiite victims of sectarian violence whose bodies were not claimed by families.

Abu Semidiah said bodies in batches of 70 or more arrive from Baghdad about once a week in refrigerated trucks belonging to the Health Ministry. With each body comes a serial number that corresponds to a picture of the body kept at the Baghdad central morgue.

The number is engraved on tombstones so families that finally track down a missing relative can either exhume the remains for burial elsewhere or replace the number on the tombstone with the deceased's name, said the undertaker, who lost a 15-year-old, Salam, in a Baghdad bombing two years ago but was too grief-stricken to bury him himself.

Much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad has been blamed on Sunni militants or death squads linked to the Shiite Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The bodies of the victims — handcuffed, showing signs of torture and with execution-style gunshot wounds — are routinely found in deserted areas, garbage dumps or floating in the Tigris river.

Ironically, the men in Najaf and Karbala who volunteer to administer the ritual washing of bodies — part of the Islamic burial rites — and pray for their souls are often volunteers from the Mahdi Army.

"The Mahdi Army has played a pioneering role in this humanitarian task," boasted Sheik Abdullah al-Karbalai, a 32-year-old Shiite cleric from Karbala and a supporter of al-Sadr.

Al-Karbalai has overseen the burial of about 3,000 sectarian violence victims, many of them in land he said was purchased by al-Sadr for that purpose.

In Baghdad, a 34-year-old man asked a tattoo artist to mark his right shoulder with three words. "My brother Hossam," reads the tattoo in blue letters.

Firas Adel said the wording was selected so his immediate family and close friends could recognize his remains in a morgue packed with decomposed, bloodied and decapitated bodies.

Such individualized markings are now the most popular tattoos in Baghdad. But people avoid tattooing their names, which can betray their sectarian affiliation, and go instead for a symbol or a name that close family and friends would recognize.

"I may be kidnapped, beheaded and then my body is burned," said Adel, who makes a living delivering goods across Iraq, braving its deadly roads on a daily basis. "I know people who spent weeks trying to locate relatives. Don't want this to happen to me."