Sunday, September 10, 2006

It Is As If Saddam Had Never Left

"Grim days for the gravedigger of Baghdad
Hala Jaber
One man's mission grows awesome

The Sunday Times September 10, 2006

FOR 23 years Sheikh Jamal al-Sudani has taken it upon himself to bury the bodies of murdered Iraqis - men, women and children - whose families were too afraid to retrieve them from the mortuary slabs of Baghdad.

Until recently they were the victims of Saddam Hussein's pitiless and paranoid regime, which hunted down critics with ruthless efficiency and often dispatched their sons as well to eliminate the risk of revenge.

When Saddam was overthrown three years ago, Sudani thought his workload would ease. But now he is busier than ever and can barely imagine the suffering of those whose grisly remains are being tipped into new mass graves reminiscent of the old tyranny.

In July, which saw the worst sectarian slaughter so far in Baghdad, Sudani collected up to 500 bodies in a single week. There was one particularly dreadful day when he wondered how he would find the strength to carry on.

Arriving at al-Tub al-Adli morgue in the capital, he was asked to remove a coarse cloth sack of heads that had been left on a filthy floor. Among the heads was that of a boy no more than 12 years old. Sudani could see that it had been cut off.

"I felt something snap inside me," he said last week. "My guts were knotted and I started to cry. It was like looking at my young son. He had such an innocent face."

Yet Sudani, a father of three boys - Khaled, 18, Hassanein, 16, and Jaafar, 7 - recovered his composure, reflected on his duty to the dead and returned to his macabre routine.

The sheikh ensures that each of Baghdad's unclaimed bodies is wrapped in six metres of blue plastic and loaded onto a flat-bed lorry for the journey south.

The route is perilous for the drivers of his truck and three escort vehicles. They are Shi'ites but must pass through the so-called "Triangle of Death", the heartland of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and associated Sunni extremists.

"Every time we do the trip we feel that an invisible hand is guiding us," Sudani said. "It is the divine presence of Allah's angels that sees us safely through."

The Wadi-us-Salaam (Valley of Peace) in Najaf covers 6 square kilometres and contains in the region of 5 million bodies. It is located near the Meshed Ali (Tomb of Ali,) the resting place of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, nearly all Shi'as in Iraq request that they be buried in this cemetery.

It was the scene of fighting between US occupation soldiers and fighters loyal to Muqdata al-Sadr in August 2004. Below is Abbas Kadhim's description from "Calling It Like It Is" of learning that his mother's grave had been destroyed in the fighting - mfi

"Finally, my family's phone was fixed. I spoke with them directly for the fist time in months. Here is what my father said when I asked him about Kufa and Najaf (from the Arabic):

"Kufa is fine, not much damage. But Najaf has been obliterated. Until now some bodies are under the ruins. No one is allowed in the old city."
Then I asked him about the cemetery: -"when you stand at the 1920-Revolution monument, you can see the sea of Najaf," he said.
-What about my mother's grave, I asked.
- "Do you have a problem with your ears? All are gone," he said in a stoic tone.
So my mother's grave has been bombed to the ground. One of my dreams was to go to Iraq after 13 years and recite the "Fatiha" by her grave, as I always did after she left me at the age of 11 (she was 25)." Abbas Kadhim The convoy's destination is usually the holy city of Najaf and the Wadi al-Salam (valley of peace) cemetery. One of the largest graveyards on earth, it is said to have been designated a gateway to paradise by Imam Ali, one of Shi'ite Islam's most revered figures.

Here, within sight of the gilded Imam Ali mosque, the sheikh and a team of helpers wearing white gloves and masks unload the bodies, remove the plastic wrapping and cut the bonds of any whose hands were tied before they were killed.

They wash and disinfect the bodies, then assign a number to each one. Every tormented face is photographed and any distinguishing features are meticulously recorded on a computer in case a loved one should summon the courage to come looking for them.

The bodies are then shrouded in 10 metres of white cotton, carried to the graveside and lain in line to await burial.


The mass graves of the post-war period in Najaf and the neighbouring holy city of Karbala are filled by Sudani and others with a care that Saddam's henchmen never showed. Yet they signify atrocities as horrifying as almost anything seen in the pre-war Iraq.

"It is as if Saddam had never left," Sudani said. "In his day people were callously murdered and those I have to pick up from the morgue today are no different. I believe the people carrying out these murders learnt from Saddam. He was the master. But the killers have developed new methods more brutal than before."

The victims of Sunni beheading gangs and the Shi'ite death squads' so-called "driller killers" are piling up at an increasingly alarming rate amid claims that Iraq is entering a civil war.


Part of the answer lies in the records he has amassed over the years. The strange personal archive maintained by Sudani and his son Khaled at their modest home in the poor Baghdad suburb of Sadr City chronicles each change in the pattern of violence and its devastating impact.

The files created for each month show how the Sunni beheaders held sway when their stronghold of Falluja was stormed by US forces in 2004; how Shi'ite squads armed with electric drills stepped up their activities after an attack on the al-Askari mosque in Samarra last February; and how little difference the killing in June of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has made to the level of violence.


Some of those who were burnt were killed in car bombs, he explains, while others were dowsed with petrol and set alight. Of those who died from asphyxiation, some were strangled and others were suffocated with polythene bags.

"Sometimes people can't believe what they see in these pictures," he said. "Many can't stomach them but I have to live with them, be with them and try to make sense out of them.

"I am very tired but this has become my destiny, my mission. I do not do this out of choice but out of religious obligation."

It was while I was working on an investigation to expose Iraq's new mass graves two months ago that I was warned of a plan to kill me. This newspaper's emergency evacuation procedure swung into action and I had no choice but to abandon my inquiries for the time being. But Sudani's haunting images made me determined that the story should be told.

The sensitive and hazardous nature of Sudani's work has attracted unwelcome attention to him, too. A roadside bomb was recently detonated as his convoy drove through the town of Latifiya in the Triangle of Death. Seven of his men were injured in the attack, which he says was aimed at him.


He believes his association with the Mahdi army of Moqtadr al-Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric, has helped to make him the target of Sunni extremists.

One factor in his decision to ignore the warnings is the satisfaction he senses when a family traces a missing relative through his archive and discovers that he has provided dignified burial.

Often the families are Sunnis who did not collect a body for fear of being kidnapped or killed by Shi'ite militiamen said to watch the morgue. Those who prefer a Sunni burial ground are allowed to exhume the dead.

Sudani makes no religious distinction between those he helps: "The unclaimed victims have no mothers or fathers to cry for them so my men and I become their loved ones and we mourn them as our own." "

The Sunday Times September 10, 2006


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