By Isabel Coles
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The fridges are nearly full at the morgue in Mosul where the casualties of war with Islamic State are stored.
So many bodies are brought in that the morgue workers struggle to identify and bury the dead fast enough to make space for the next batch that arrives with grim regularity, as the city’s residents clear up after nine months of urban warfare.
The battle for Mosul is over, but the task of sorting out the dead is only just beginning.
“A lot of blood has been shed,” said an employee at the morgue, who asked not to be named. “Iraq used to have two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Now we have a third: the river of blood.”
The full scale of the losses may never be known. Morgue and rescue workers said they were now receiving bodies at a rate of at least 30 to 40 per day – most of them killed by air strikes that helped dislodge the militants.
Inside one of the fridges, black body bags stacked to the side contain the remains of civilians who were methodically gunned down by Islamic State snipers, behind a soft-drinks factory as they fled towards Iraqi security forces in June.
A woman at the morgue had just identified one of them as her mother: “I’ve been searching for her body for a month and a half,” she said. What she found hardly resembled her mother, but she recognised the clothing and contents of her pocket.
All that remained of one man was a shrivelled foot, brought to the morgue wrapped in a dust-clogged jacket. Relatives identified it from the sock the man wore when an air strike crushed him to death beneath his own home, a morgue worker said.
“The numbers are higher than we expected,” said Dr Modhar al-Omary, the head of the morgue in east Mosul. “We keep hoping the flow will decrease, but so far it hasn’t.”
RETRIEVING THE DEAD
Leading the effort to recover corpses decaying beneath the rubble is the Civil Defence Force.
“I can’t even smell it anymore,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rabia at the force’s headquarters in west Mosul.
Retrieving the dead is itself a potentially lethal endeavour: Last week, a member of the Civil Defence Force was killed when a bomb buried under the ruins of a home exploded as he tried to free bodies trapped there.
The worker who drove the bulldozer, clearing the way for bodies to be taken out, was also wounded and has since quit, severely affecting the team’s capabilities.
Adding to their woes, they have not been paid since the government suspended salaries to its employees in areas under Islamic State control nearly three years ago.
“If we don’t do it, who will?” said Civil Defence worker Ahmed Abdulqader, asked why he continued working without pay. “We are serving our country.”
The Civil Defence Force only recovers bodies to which relatives of the deceased lead them. The rest are left in the rubble for now. Otherwise, there would be too many corpses to fit in the fridges at the morgue, and it would be harder for relatives to identify them.
When an unidentified body is brought to the morgue, it is kept in the fridge for some time. If nobody claims it, the remains are photographed and buried in a numbered plot by the Mosul municipality so they can be located if someone comes searching in future.
Beyond identifying and burying the hundreds killed during the battle, an even bigger challenge looms.
The status of all the people who died during three years of Islamic State rule, whether from natural or unnatural causes, is ambiguous.
Many of them were buried informally, or received death certificates issued by Islamic State, but the Iraqi government does not recognise those.
Without an Iraqi death certificate, relatives of the deceased cannot claim compensation from the government, but to obtain one, the body must be dug up so the identity can be verified.
Yasin Abdullah’s brother died in February when a car bomb parked outside the entrance to his home in west Mosul blew up. He was buried in the yard of a nearby school because it was too dangerous to make the trip to a graveyard.
The school has re-opened now, but Abdullah has yet to receive permission from the court to dig up his brother’s grave.
“How will I secure my brother’s rights and his children’s?” he asked.
The authorities want to check they were not Islamic State members, for whom Iraqi authorities do not issue death certificates.
As for their bodies, they are left to rot in the sun, said Civil Defence worker Ayham Abdelhamad: “There are hungry animals around – they can eat them.”
(Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alison Williams)
By Isabel Coles