You can smell Baghdad morgue from hundreds of feet away. Each gust of hot air blowing from the direction of the medical complex that houses it carries the distinctive reek of decomposing flesh. In a 110-degree Iraqi summer, it doesn't take long for bodies to go bad.
The place became notorious during the Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence that threatened to tear the country apart in 2006 and 2007. Then, death squads locked in a cycle of reprisal killings were piling corpses up in the mortuary at a rate of more than 1,000 a month. Overwhelmed employees barely had time to process them for the grieving families arriving to claim their dead. The security situation has since improved and things are quieter. But observers are once again predicting Iraq's collapse and in the morgue, the number of victims is mounting.
Staff, however, are still dealing with the hangover of blood shed eight years ago. In a shadowy space to the right of an entrance to the complex, rows of metal chairs are bolted to the ground in front of a large wall-mounted television. A macabre slideshow of unidentified or unidentifiable bodies that the morgue has not had space to keep flash up on the screen. Families of the missing journey here in the hope of discovering what happened to their loved ones.
'They were shot by someone well trained.'
Widows, parents, children, and siblings stare at corpse after corpse; one showing signs of torture, the next blackened and bloated beyond recognition, another burnt, shot, or torn apart by a bomb blast. Some young hospital workers huddle close to the air conditioning unit in the corner — one of the few in a public area of the building — while the audience members sit in tearful silence, or quietly exchange stories.
One man lost his sister in a bombing in the southern city of Kut in 2011. He only found her finger, and said that he comes here regularly in the hope that it will be proven to be hers with DNA testing. An elderly Shiite woman wrapped in black explained that in 2007 three of her brothers had been kidnapped and presumably killed, while she had been displaced from their home in a majority Sunni area and her identity cards stolen. She wanted verification of their death and had been searching mortuaries and hospitals for their bodies for three or four years.
Aside from closure, proof of death also, at least theoretically, makes relatives of those martyred in terrorist attacks eligible for government compensation. Some hope they might be given land, but there are many more martyrs than plots.
Nearby, there's a DNA lab to identify badly decomposed remains, especially those found in mass graves. It analyzes bone and tooth fragments, and attempts to match them with blood samples provided by family members with missing relatives. So far, 31,000 of them have come forward. However, the lab has been operational for less than a year and a technician told VICE News that they need more equipment to deal with the sheer volume of cases.
The morgue itself is a few corridors and a fetid outdoor passage away. The smell is much stronger here and members of the press attempting to gain entrance recently have been turned away. One recent morning a few of the more than 60 corpses that staff said were in the morgue that day lay on the slabs. They included an unidentified member of the security forces who had apparently been killed and thrown in a river, a baby wrapped in a pink blanket, a female drowning victim, and a slim young man with a gunshot wound in his forehead. Some died from natural causes, staff said.
This style of butchery is grimly familiar to morgue staff.
Since hardline Sunni militants headed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — now known as Islamic State — overran large swathes of northern Iraq in a shock offensive last month, there has been a significant increase in violent deaths, an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told VICE News. Before that, the "dead income" of unexplained and violent deaths, including car crashes and drowning, had been standing at an average of 16-20 per day.
That figure is now up by at least five every day, and these are not accidents. Most, the official said, are upper body wounds, usually, as with the man on the slab, a single bullet to the head. These are execution-style killings by gunmen who know exactly where to aim. "That means they were shot by someone well trained," the official said. Between 4PM the previous afternoon and 10AM that morning, 20 new bodies had arrived. Six were unidentified and two of those were shot.
This style of butchery is grimly familiar to morgue staff. Eight years ago, as sectarian violence raged, bodies turned up every day in Baghdad and elsewhere on roadsides, alleyways, and rubbish tips. The victims had been tortured, executed, then unceremoniously dumped. The toll across the country reached more than 3,000 victims a month at its worst.
Few, however, will admit to the possibility of these events happening again. Adnan al-Saraj, a prominent member of Prime Minister's Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite State of Law coalition, told VICE News that there was no risk of the Islamic State advance reigniting Sunni-Shiite tensions. "At the beginning of the current crisis, we thought that Iraq would turn into a sectarian war zone again, but thank god we passed that stage and are safe."
'Sometimes, people kill Shiites, so then the people on our side kill one or two Sunnis.'
Others, however, said that violence was on the rise. A Shiite militia member who asked to be identified only as Abu Malak told VICE News that retaliatory attacks had begun again in his neighborhood. "Sometimes, people kill Shiites, so then the people on our side kill one or two Sunnis," he said. It didn't matter, he added, whether the new victims were guilty of the original killings or not.
Insurgents, likely to be at least affiliated to if not part of Islamic State, have also been carrying a devastating suicide bombing campaign. Things had seemed quieter after large-scale attacks in the lead up to April elections ended. But least 24 people were killed in a northern Baghdad neighborhood on Tuesday night, when a bomber detonated a car packed with explosives at a checkpoint crowded with families entering the Shiite holy city of Kadhimiya, police and health ministry sources confirmed to VICE News. Then 10 more civilians and police died in other attacks earlier in the day.
Tuesday’s casualties were the latest in what is proving to be a bloody few days in central Iraq. Sixteen people died in the Baghdad area on the night of July 21 in mortar and IED blasts, and another 27 died in a series of bombings targeting predominantly Shiite areas in the capital two days earlier — the worst loss of life in the capital since Mosul fell.
The attacks continued a pattern that looks set to make 2014 the bloodiest year for some time. While 5,500 civilians died violent deaths between January and the end of June, according to the UN, 1,500 of those alone were in June. By comparison, 7,800 civilians were killed in the whole of 2013, and that was itself the highest annual death toll in years.
Meanwhile, the push by pro-government fighters has meant that military casualties are mounting too, especially from Ramadi in Anbar Province and areas surrounding Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, where troops appear to have halted the insurgents' advance but are struggling to launch an effective counterattack and reclaim territory.
Hundreds died in June and the death toll has continued to climb as major assaults by Iraqi forces, backed by armored vehicles and air support, have repeatedly been repelled. Volunteers and militia members told VICE News that the Islamic State-led militants are well entrenched, well-equipped, and make heavy and effective use of snipers and suicide bombings.
Most dead soldiers, militiamen, and volunteers are processed at a complex in Muthana Air Base. But if they are unclaimed or identified, they too end up in this morgue. There have been 35 such cases from Tikrit in the past week and 20 from Ramadi, officials said, adding that a further 18 are on the way. Baghdad morgue, it seems, will be crowded once again.
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