Syria gravediggers have no time to wait for the dead

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On Sunday morning the workers were back, digging fresh graves for the next victims, whoever they may be.

“We know the plane is coming to hit us, so we’re being prepared,” said Abu Sulaiman, one of a few men digging at the Sheikh Saad cemetery.

“Massacres are happening. We’re putting every two or three bodies together. We’ve been working and digging since 6 in the morning. We’re going to dig 10 new graves today,” he said.

After 21 months of war, rebel fighters have captured much of northern and eastern Syria. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad still control the densely populated southwest, the main north-south highway and the Mediterranean coast.

The government also holds airbases throughout the country, which troops defend with artillery and air strikes, outgunning the lightly armed fighters.

Azaz lies near one of those bases, the Menagh military airport, 5-7 km (3-5 miles) away, which rebel fighters have surrounded and have been attacking for a few weeks, provoking retaliatory strikes on nearby towns. Because they are so close, residents have come to expect to be hit.

More than 45,000 people have been killed in the war between rebels, mainly drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, and forces loyal to Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-linked Alawite minority whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

Fida, a 15-year-old girl in a green scarf and purple coat looked on as her father shoveled dirt from the gravesite. The dead from the previous day’s attacks included friends she recognised when their shrouds were pulled back.

“Yesterday was the first time I uncovered blankets to discover that my friends had died,” she said, as young children near the cemetery played hopscotch on the streets and kicked stones about.

“I was just about to go visit them about a half hour before the strike hit,” she said. “In the end I visited them when they were dead.”

Abu Bahri, a smart 45-year-old man with a close-cut beard, recounts how the town dug fresh graves a few months ago when the fighting in Aleppo province turned ferocious.

“When we first dug graves, we dug 14. We didn’t expect them to be filled, and then we were surprised by the first massacre that happened,” he told Reuters as he supervised a group of workers digging new graves and unloading concrete blocks.

“We expect the regime to commit more massacres because it’s a criminal regime. It’s a genocide. They’re not hitting Free Syria Army targets, they’re hitting civilians,” he said, referring to the main rebel force in the area.

Marble gravestones are now squeezed barely a few centimeters apart as workers try to fit as many bodies as possible into the cemetary, near a block of single storey homes. When space runs out, they may be forced to find a new location, says Abu Sulaiman, the gravedigger.

“We’re preparing them. Maybe we’ll be buried in them.”

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