Since east Mosul’s recent liberation, residents reinter their loved ones properly following improvised burials during hostile times.
MOSUL – Abdulrahman Riyadh points to three mounds of earth in a garden in eastern Mosul. “That’s my father, that one’s my mother and next to it is my little brother.”
“We buried them under the orange trees,” said Abdulrahman, 18.
Iraqi forces have in recent days completed their reconquest of eastern Mosul, a key step in the battle to retake the country’s second city from the Islamic State group.
Many of those killed in the fighting had to be hastily buried in improvised plots — like Abdulrahman’s family — and now many residents are looking to hold proper reburials.
Abdulrahman and his brother Adnan, who is two years older, were the only two survivors of what residents said was an air strike that destroyed their home.
At dawn on January 6, around 20 people were killed in a strike that levelled three homes in Al-Zirai, an upmarket neighbourhood of eastern Mosul, according to the Riyadh brothers and other residents.
“Everything collapsed around me,” said Abdulrahman. “I pushed the debris around me, I got up and I asked my brother if he was still alive. He was wounded in the leg.”
“I told him to come into my bed and I started looking for my little brother, my father and my mother. I screamed but nobody answered.”
Because the fighting was ongoing in the area, the two surviving brothers had to settle on burying their family in their grandfather’s garden, a few blocks away.
“Can you imagine this? In one day, I bid farewell to three members of my family. I buried a part of my soul that day,” said Adnan.
Al-Zirai, which lies not far from the Tigris River that divides the city of Mosul, is a leafy neighbourhood of wide streets lined by palm trees and large villas.
It was relatively spared by the fighting, as were large parts of east Mosul where the continued presence of around half a million civilians limited all the warring parties in their choice of weapons.
– Buried three times –
The improvised burial site the Riyadh brothers found for their family is a peaceful place but they insisted they would reinter the three bodies on the west bank when it is rid of jihadists.
Many of the victims of the offensive are being buried a second time, now that some normalcy is returning to the “liberated” east bank.
Faleh Mohammed, the gravedigger at the Gogjali cemetery on the eastern edge of Mosul, said he had recently been witnessing as many as 10 reburials a day.
“During the fighting, there are people who were buried in gardens, in mosques. Then a month or two later, when the neighbourhoods have been liberated and cleared, their relatives come here to re-inter them.”
He said some victims of the Mosul battle may even get a third burial.
“In some cases the family cemetery is on the other side of the city,” Mohammed said, referring to the west bank, which IS still fully controls.
“That means that when the west side is cleared, they’ll move the bodies one more time,” said Mohammed.
Tombstones stretched behind him as far as the eye could see and his hands were covered in earth from another day of relentless digging.
“It used to be simple: when somebody died, you would bury him once. It’s weird, now people are buried twice, sometimes three times!”
In one of the cemetery’s narrow alleys, a van pulled up in front of two gaping graves. A son extracted the body of his father wrapped in a blood-stained sheet, the acrid stench mixed with the musty smell of wet soil.
Relatives said the man was killed together with another civilian three weeks ago when a mortar shell ploughed into their neighbourhood.
“Burying them once was hard enough, but a second time it’s even worse,” Raad Hassan, a friend of the family, said as an imam gave the victims their last rites.