Photo essay: Lonely burials for coronavirus victims in Iraq's Najaf

A member the Shiite of Imam Ali brigades militia prays by a grave of a coronavirus victim during a funeral at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP)

Every chapter of Iraq’s modern history can be seen in the sprawling cemetery of Wadi al-Salam outside the holy city of Najaf. Its sandy expanse is growing, this time with coronavirus victims.

A special burial ground near the cemetery has been created specifically for COVID-19 victims because such burials have been rejected by Baghdad cemeteries and elsewhere in Iraq.

In Iraq, the virus has been surrounded by stigma, driven by religious beliefs, customs and a deep mistrust of the health care system.

For more coronavirus coverage, visit our dedicated section.

Overseeing the “New Wadi al-Salam,” or Valley of Peace, cemetery and helping with the burial procedures are Iraqi Shiite volunteers, militiamen from the Imam Ali Combat Brigade. They had been fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq over the past few years. The brigade operates under the umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Corpses of the virus victims arrive at night in body bags driven by ambulances and burial procedures take place at daybreak. In the past four months, more than 3,000 bodies have been buried here, said Sarmad Khalaf Ibrahim, an official with the martyrs affairs department of the PMF.

He said the cemetery receives victims from all religions and is not limited to Muslims only.

“We had more than four or five (burials) of the Christian religion, They were buried with special ceremonies, appropriate and befitting them according to their request,” Ibrahim said.

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Iraq has seen a steady surge in coronavirus cases. The country’s Health Ministry has reported more than 100,000 confirmed virus cases, including 4,122 deaths.

Iraq’s centralized health system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been worn down by decades of war, sanctions and prolonged unrest since the 2003 US invasion, with little investment from successive governments.

The government hospitals in Baghdad are overwhelmed, barely able to handle the increasing numbers.

Najaf’s Wadi al-Salam cemetery, 160 kilometres (99 miles) south of Baghdad, is believed to be one of the largest in the world and is the final resting place of choice for pious Shiites because of its proximity to the shrine of Imam Ali, the much revered 7th-century founder of their sect.

It includes those killed in Iraq’s long war in the 1980s with Iran, those slain in the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, as well as Shiite militiamen who fought IS in more recent years.

Here is a gallery of images from Anmar Khalil.

A member of the Shiite Imam Ali brigades militia prays by a body of a coronavirus victim during a funeral at the new Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP)

A member of the Shiite Imam Ali brigades militia prays by a body of a coronavirus victim during a funeral at the new Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP)

Shiite cleric prays by the grave of coronavirus victim at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. A special burial ground near the Wadi al-Salam cemetery has been created specifically for COVID-19 victims since rejections of such burials have continued in Baghdad cemeteries and elsewhere in Iraq. (AP)

Shiite cleric prays by the grave of coronavirus victim at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. A special burial ground near the Wadi al-Salam cemetery has been created specifically for COVID-19 victims since rejections of such burials have continued in Baghdad cemeteries and elsewhere in Iraq. (AP)

Shiite cleric prays by the body of coronavirus victim at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP)

Shiite cleric prays by the body of coronavirus victim at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP)

Members of the Shiite Imam Ali brigades militia take a break during funerals of coronavirus victims at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP)

Members of the Shiite Imam Ali brigades militia take a break during funerals of coronavirus victims at Wadi al-Salam cemetery near Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP)

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Last Update: Friday, 24 July 2020 KSA 10:55 - GMT 07:55
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