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tracking down the dead in basra

Saleem al-Wazzan
The Families of victims of the bombings that swept Basra are still searching for their missing members.
19.08.2010  |  Basra

The busy al-Ashar area, with shops, pharmacies, offices and clinics was rocked by the explosion of two car bombs at 7pm on 7 August – rush hour – when many people were at the market buying provisions for Ramadan.

Almost two weeks after a series of explosions that rocked the city centre on Saturday evening, killing 50 people and injuring 185 others.

Dozens of missing persons' pictures are still hanged on the city's walls, their bodies unaccounted for. One picture shows a woman in her 70s whose family believes she was killed by the blast.

Hussein Rawdan, an Iraqi army officer, said that his mother, Karima Baqer al-Hajjaj, was in this area when the bombings occurred. He and his family went to the area but it was too difficult to search properly for his mother because of fire and debris piled everywhere.

Like others, they hung pictures of the woman on the city’s walls. He told Niqash that he faced difficulty getting near to the bombed area because of the security measures in place.

The day after the bombings, he and many others went to the hospitals to search for the bodies of their missing family members but again found nothing.

"In the early morning, Basra municipality started to raze the bombed area with bulldozers and carried all the debris including copses to the Muhammad al-Qasem dumping area," said Rawdan. "This made it harder for us to find the bodies."

Ten days after the incident, people were identifying their relatives by body parts found in the dumping area.

"The forensic medicine department said that it would not accept any bodies unless permission was granted by the police to do so," said Rawdan.

"One family was able to find the ring of its missing member and held the mourning rituals upon this evidence,” he added.

Eye witnesses close to the dumping area confirmed that they saw 12 trucks carrying debris. Ahmad Mizel, who lost his brother in the bombing said that the municipality “bulldozed the area in the morning without giving us the time to search for our family members' corpses.

"At the forensic medicine department there were fights between the staff and bereaved families because of the difficulty many had in identifying the bodies of victims.”

“Many people have contacted the organisation to express their resentment about the way the victims' corpses were dumped and about the haste accompanying the process,” said Sami Tuman, part of Basra’s Human Rights Organisation.

Tuman said that the government, by bulldozing and cleaning the bombsite in such a hurry, “was attempting to hide the size of the tragedy." He stressed that before doing so, “the government should have made full field investigations."

Niqash contacted the civil defence directorate to inquire about the matter. The department denied that debris had been removed but Ghanem al-Maliki, responsible for the security committee of Basra province has confirmed peoples' claims.

He added that the the bulldozing “only took place when the security forces finished their work.

"A full report was submitted by my office to the criminal evidence and explosives control department after screening the explosion area. Bulldozing was not done randomly. The street where the attack took place was a narrow one and victims' bodies were scattered around the street."

Dr. Salah al-Ahmed al-Saad, in charge of the hospital’s mortuary, confirmed that 50 dead bodies had been accounted for. He said three remained unidentified and that the hospital took DNA samples from them and sent them to Baghdad for identification.

"We are waiting for results but all other corpses were identified by their families," he said.

He confirmed that bodies were given to family members after being identified.

“Some people identified the bodies of their victims because of the hair or a golden tooth. These people didn't need the committee's help."

The explosion was so strong that many bodies were found on roofs of the surrounding buildings. The police still have not formed teams to search for missing bodies in the surrounding area.

"The Ashraf building next to the explosion place is still closed. The police didn't yet open it and check its roof despite the fact that they found on a child’s body on the roof of a nearby building,” said Majed Abu Ahmad, a shopkeeper in al-Ashar.

Sami Tuman criticised the response of the authorities, saying they behaved in a “very confused manner especially in the early hours of the attack."

Initially, Adel Dahham, the police chief, said that electricity failure was behind the explosion and denied news saying that it was a terrorist act. Later the police admitted that terrorists had caused the blast.

As well as the police force, Basra’s hospitals proved they were not well-equipped enough to face the results of such attacks.

One doctor, preferring to remain anonymous, said that some injured people died because of the hospital’s lack of blood supply.

“There are time-consuming bureaucratic procedures you have to go through to get extra blood,” he revealed.

This is the second large explosion to hit Basra this year. In May, a bomb killed and injured 85.