Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
Photo: Reuters
Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease

Iraqi militiamen drop guns to dig graves for coronavirus dead

At the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, created to fight Islamic State, now volunteer as morticians for both Muslim and Christian victims of the pathogen

Reuters |
Published: 06.01.20 , 23:26
Iraqi paramedic Sarmad Ibrahim cut his teeth treating fellow Shi'ite Muslim militiamen in the war against Islamic State. Now, he buries COVID-19 victims - an exhausting task where he must also get to grips with both Muslim and Christian burial rites.
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  • "So far, we're coping," Ibrahim said as fellow volunteers from the Imam Ali Combat Brigade prepared to handle a coffin just sent from Baghdad. "But if we start receiving more bodies we might not be able to bury according to religious rules."
    Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    (Photo: Reuters)
    He and the other team members work at a new cemetery in the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, Iraq's only graveyard specifically for those who have died of COVID-19.
    Established after an edict from Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it is dwarfed by the nearby Wadi al-Salam cemetery, the largest in the world, but is expanding.
    More than 200 people have died since the outbreak began in Iraq in February and the volunteers say they receive two to four corpses each day. The country's confirmed coronavirus infections have doubled from around 3,000 to more than 6,000 in the space of just over two weeks, according to health ministry figures.
    A grave of a christian man who passed away due to the coronavirus disease A grave of a christian man who passed away due to the coronavirus disease
    A grave of a Christian man who passed away due to the coronavirus disease
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Ibrahim and his comrades joined the brigade part of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitary umbrella grouping, to fight Islamic State several years ago.
    While this enemy is very different, the work is both physically and emotionally draining.
    Bodies often arrive at night. The volunteers, in full protective suits, wash and wrap the corpses in black burial shrouds before putting them back in the coffins. They carry the coffins to the graves under the headlights of their vehicles.

    Stigma and unfamiliar rites

    The team has struggled to expand beyond its dozen or so members. Some medics say suspected exposure to the virus has alienated them from their families and neighbors and for these volunteers, it is no different, even though there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread via corpses.
    Abdelhussan Kadhim from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, and fellow volunteers wearing protective suits, bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease Abdelhussan Kadhim from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, and fellow volunteers wearing protective suits, bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    Abdul Hassan Kadhim from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work at the cemetery, and fellow volunteers wearing protective suits, bury the coffin of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "If we face a shortage of men, I'll have to ask friends or other fighters to come and help us. I'm afraid that if someone catches the virus, relatives will blame me for it," said a 46-year-old militiaman, who gave his name as Abu Sajad.
    He had not told his family he is working in the cemetery and said that the friends who know are reluctant to meet him.
    Some tribes and local religious leaders have refused to bury victims of the virus in local cemeteries, one of the reasons this new graveyard was set up.
    Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and a Shiite student of al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they shroud the body of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and a Shiite student of al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they shroud the body of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    Members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and a Shiite student of al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, who volunteered to work at the cemetery, wear protective suits as they shroud the body of a man who passed away due to coronavirus disease
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "In the beginning, bodies were brought back to the morgue, where they stayed for up to 15 days," said Abdul Hassan Kadhim, who leads the burial volunteer team. "They ended up being buried without proper religious rites."
    Cemetery staff must respect those rites. With relatives allowed to watch from a distance, a student from a local seminary leads prayers around each Muslim grave. Two Christians were recently buried in the cemetery as well.
    Abdelhussan Kadhim, from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work in the cemetery, wears his protective suit Abdelhussan Kadhim, from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work in the cemetery, wears his protective suit
    Abdul Hassan Kadhim, from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who volunteered to work in the cemetery, wears his protective suit
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "We know they'd prefer to be buried in their own graveyards. But because of the pandemic, they now rest here," Abu Sajad said kneeling in front of one of the Christian graves.
    "We asked for advice on Christian burials, to be able to carry them out according to their own rituals and traditions. I didn't know about them before. But we did everything the way our Christian brothers told us."
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