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Waiting for their dead, Iraqis blame government for hospital fire

Published: Updated:

With no body to bury, Hatam Kareem comforted himself by clutching the clothes of his son, who died along with his mother and grandmother in a fire that killed dozens at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Nassiriya this week.

“Look at him, what crime did he commit to be burned alive?” said Kareem, 40, weeping as he took out his mobile phone to show a photo of his 17-year-old boy, whose remains are among the charred bodies that have yet to be identified.

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Kareem buried his wife on Wednesday in the holy city of Najaf before returning to his hometown of Shatra where, dressed in black, he received mourners at a Shiite mosque.

“The government bears full responsibility for the death of my wife and my son. What’s my crime to lose my son and I can’t bury him?” said Kareem, a policeman. “Last night, I took out his clothes and embraced them in bed. I want my son.”

Families of the victims and residents in general have blamed the authorities for the fire that tore through the hospital set up to treat COVID-19 patients.

An initial police report, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, said the fire was caused when an oxygen tank exploded.

The report noted that the hospital had been built with lightweight panels separating the wards, making the fire spread faster, and the hospital lacked enough emergency exits which caused higher casualties.

A Health Ministry statement on Wednesday put the death toll at 60, including 21 unidentified bodies. It did not say why the number was lower than a death toll of 92 reported by the state-run Iraqi National News agency on Tuesday.

Reuters could not immediately reach the Health Ministry spokesperson for comment.

It was Iraq’s second such tragedy in three months, and the country’s president on Tuesday blamed corruption for both. In April, a similar explosion at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital killed at least 82.

Many Iraqis are furious with a ruling establishment that has allowed corruption to spread while millions of people live in poverty despite the country’s vast oil wealth.

The results of a government investigation would be announced within a week, the prime minister’s office said on Tuesday.

STAMPEDE, LOCKED DOORS

More than 20 bodies are still waiting to be identified at the morgue, where 28-year-old Mustafa Khalil sat with his back to the wall, hoping for information about his mother.

“I want my mother ... even if only one bone is left, I want it,” he said.

Khalil, who had been visiting his mother at the time of the blaze, described chaotic scenes and a stampede as the fire spread and people trying to flee encountered locked doors.

“When the fire started they told us to stay beside our patients ... they told us ‘if you leave you’ll die’,” he said.

“We stayed near patients, helpless ... shortly afterwards I was trapped by smoke and fires and I couldn’t breath.”

Natiq Hashim, 35, lost his sister, mother and a 14-year-old niece in the fire. He said he arrived at the hospital about 15 minutes after the fire began, and that it took more than an hour for firefighters or ambulances to arrive, with tuk-tuks being used to evacuate patients and the wounded.

“I buried two members of my family - my mother and sister - and my niece’s body is still missing. I hold the government fully responsible - the prime minister, the interior and health ministers bear all responsibility.”

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