When he returned to the city of Fallujah, Ayman al-Mamawi wasn’t surprised to see his house in ruins. The 46-year-old had already received pictures a friend had taken for him and he knew there was substantial damage, even before he made the decision to return to his home in Iraq's central Anbar province.
As he got closer to his house, al-Mamawi said he started thinking about his priorities in terms of reconstruction and return, what he should start fixing and when.
“But as soon as I got closer I started to smell a really bad smell,” al-Mamawi told NIQASH. “Finding the source of that smell became our first priority. And finally we discovered what was causing it: There were corpses in the ruins.”
It changed our feelings about returning home completely. The only thing we knew was that we couldn’t live in the house any more.
Al-Mamawi says that next he went to notify the security forces. “We were too scared of explosives to count how many dead there were. And we decided that the best thing to do would be to demolish the whole house and get rid of the human remains – as well,” he notes, “as all of our belongings and memories, which were also in the ruins.”
Of course, al-Mamawi argues, the corpses of the dead fighters from the extremist group known as the Islamic State that once controlled the city, is a good sign. “It’s an indication of the success of the Iraqi forces during the fighting,” al-Mamawi argues. “At the same time though, it is also a criticism of the local government. They have not done their job. There are still corpses everywhere!”
Al-Mamawi is not the only returnee in Fallujah to have to deal with this problem. People are finding rotting corpses all over the city and now there is a fear they might cause an epidemic, not to mention the psychological impact they have. The corpses are also a problem for the local authorities and the security forces because of the concern that there are explosives on them or hidden around them – special engineering teams are needed to get rid of the bodies.
“It would never have occurred to me that one of my biggest problems would be that there would be a corpse in every corner,” says Amer Halbusi, a 53-year-old, who recently returned to his home in the Nazirah area of Fallujah.
He told NIQASH that he knew his house was only partially damaged and that he could probably renovate it; it was part of the reason he and his family decided to return.
“I remember my daughter screaming as she pulled what she thought was a piece of old clothing from under some damage,” Halbusi says. “There were human bones attached. Which changed our feelings about returning home completely. It became clear that people had been in the house, using it, although we don’t know if they were terrorists or not. The only thing we knew was that we couldn’t live in the house any more – at least, for now,” he concludes.
Halbusi says he is not the only one to have to deal with this issue. Other friends and relatives have suggested he scrub the house thoroughly with disinfectants and to use pesticides to ensure there would be no illness as a result of the rotting bodies. “That had worked for them,” he complains. “But even though I tried everything the house still stinks as though I just excavated a rotten corpse.”
The complaints about smells and the fact that certain houses are not habitable has seen local authorities make a big effort to resolve the problems. But it is an ongoing task that will take some time.
“After we entered the city, our teams found dozens of decomposing corpses,” a member of the Anbar emergency troops stationed here told NIQASH on condition of anonymity; he was not authorised to talk about the topic, “Most of the corpses were removed from public places and roads before any families were let back into the city.”
But, he conceded, there are still hundreds of corpses buried in ruins in the west of Fallujah in the Golan and Andalus neighbourhoods as well as in the old market, with its narrow alleys.
It is in the first few weeks after death that the decomposition of a corps can be dangerous, explains Kamal Raja Hadad, a doctor at the Fallujah General Hospital.
“It is during those first two to three weeks that they pose a risk of disease,” the doctor says. “But today, after more than three months, they no longer pose the risk of a pandemic. However, having them around isn’t really acceptable for both personal and religious reasons.”
“The provincial council supports all efforts to find and categorize the corpses in the city and to bury them,” says Taha Abdul Ghani, a member of Anbar’s council. “We are only at the first stage of this. We are currently trying to get rid of the dead by burying them in order to avoid disease in the city.”
Ghani knows the clean-up will take some time. “We have seen as many as ten dead bodies in one place and in some houses we found more than 35 corpses,” he notes.
And there are likely to be more corpses in some of the damaged buildings that nobody has visited yet.
“When we were allowed back into the city, I walked around to see what the damage was in other neighbourhoods,” says Um Ahmad, a widow in her 50s who lives in the Golan neighbourhood. “There were really awful smells coming out of some of the ruins and there were insects and animals – but I didn’t dare look closer.”
Um Ahmad points at a nearby building, that has been almost completely flattened. “A whole family was killed there,” she says. “I watched while their bodies were taken out and there were women and children among them. I still have nightmares about them, I see the bones and I imagine how shocked they must have been to end up under those ruins.”