© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WBFO brings you live coverage of the Republican National Convention tonight from 10pm-11pm, and Wednesday & Thursday from 9pm-11pm.

Volunteers Collect Bodies In Iraq

There isn't a day in Baghdad that passes without the discovery of bodies dumped in places across the capital. Some are found tied together in abandoned vehicles on highways. Some are left among piles of garbage. Some are pulled from the Tigris River in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

There are volunteers of local Iraqi men who line the river bank in Kadhimiya; they are volunteers on the lookout for the bodies that float downstream and sometimes get caught in the reeds. One man, 18-year-old Ali Ghanem, has been doing this every day since last winter. He's said to be the best swimmer of the group.

Recently, he pulled out eight bodies. A day before that, it was 11. He says he's used to it now. Sometimes he pulls the bodies by their clothes, or from the hands. He says he's now used to the smell.

Many of the bodies have been tortured. Ahmed Hussein lost his nephew, who was kidnapped along with two of his friends not too long ago. He says their bodies turned up later in the river.

"You cannot imagine the way they were tortured. I haven't seen anything like it," Hussein said. "They used to say Saddam executes people and grinds their bodies up, but it is nothing compared to this. It's so horrible."

The Ravages of Sectarian Violence

Many of the dead are victims of sectarian violence. The people who live in Kadhimiya, a religious Shiite area in Baghdad, claim that the dead they find here every day are all Shiite. Adil Abu Saif works at the local office for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Like a lot of people here, Saif blames Sunni insurgents for the dead they find in the river. The killings appear to occur upstream, in mainly Sunni insurgent strongholds.

The bodies are often dumped in the Tigris up north, and then float down towards Kadhimiya. Abu Saif says he watches the news on television every day, and if there's a report on killings upstream, everyone comes to the river the next day to wait for the bodies to appear.

He said recently, more than 50 Iraqi police were ambushed in Taji, north of Baghdad. The day after the ambush, volunteers in Kadhimiya pulled out 13 bodies of men wearing police uniforms.

He says the dead are "100 percent Shiite"

"The families who come looking for their missing are Shiite. The killers are like bandits. They wait on the road for those who come tired from work. There are no American soldiers, there are no checkpoints."

Abu Saif says volunteers have retrieved more than 400 bodies from the river in just two months. Families post pictures of the missing on boards near the place where the bodies are brought in. One resident, Ali al Saadi, uses his video camera to record each body that is recovered, so locals have proof for authorities who might accuse them of actually killing the victims.

"We have noticed something strange lately," he said. "The bodies that come are not handcuffed. Their hands have been drilled and bolted together." He says the killers cannot be real Muslims if they treat people this way.

"Is this the holy war they talk about? There's no mercy in the hearts of the killers," Saadi says. The worst thing he's ever seen from weeks of recording the events by the river: a head floating alone.

Local Go It Alone

The volunteers don't get any help from the authorities. The river police claim they aren't allowed to act without orders, even if it means retrieving a body stuck in the middle of the river at 2 a.m., a time when it is dangerous for the swimmers to try.

"It's a shame for Iraqis to say they have a government, because our government hasn't done a thing for the people," Saadi said. "It's impossible to say they've done something."

Then the divers spot a body. It's still far away, at least 500 feet, but they're so accustomed to watching the river they know what to look for now. The men, some with their trousers rolled up to their knees, the others in long shorts, charge into the river, calling to each other to bring the body in. As they call for rope, they look at the corpse and call out "It's a man, he's been burnt." The body, decomposed and bloated, has been dead for a long time.

More volunteers sprinkle rose water to mask the smell of rotting flesh filling the air. They wrap a white cotton sheet around the body, praying "There is no God but God" as they work. For one man, the smell is too much, and he stands to the side and vomits.

As some of the men tend to the body, Mohammed Qasim calls the local police, something he says he's been doing since the morning. The police usually come and collect the bodies and take them to the morgue. Two of the bodies have been laying near the river bank since 4 in the morning and their smell is everywhere.

"This is the fifth time we've called you," Qasim says into the phone. "We've just pulled a third one out. The smell is everywhere, the sun is on them." The policeman on the other end assures Qasim they will eventually come, but Qasim doesn't believe him.

"They won't come," he said. "We wait two, three hours. Either they come or they don't. I've been calling them since four in the morning. They haven't come.”

When they finish, the swimmers stand at the bank, breathing heavily. They don't get paid for what they do. They say it's their religious duty. They could use life jackets, though. One of them asks for a motor boat. Ali Imad shushes him and says "forget the boat;" a life jacket and plastic gloves would be more than enough.

"At least it would help us swim, and helps us when we pull the body," he said. "Our lungs get filled with water, no one will bring us gloves."

Imad says the police have all the equipment to do the job but refuse to: They come, "wearing gloves and show off, but they refuse to carry the body. They say they'll get dirty."

Soon after they see another body, and dive into the river to retrieve it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.