There’s a saying the Kurdish have, when all hope has been lost: Even the devil has left them. This is how Sayed Hazar, the deputy commander of the military police to the east of Mosul, describes the corpses of the extremists he has been dealing with, since the beginning of the military operation to push the Islamic State group out of that city.
Hazar had just removed three corpses out of one of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group’s many tunnels in the area. He buried these bodies himself but he says many others were buried in mass graves. The holes were dug, the corpses placed in them, then the holes are filled in by bulldozers.
“We have been trying to deal with the bodies of these militants humanely,” Hazar told NIQASH. “Because even the devil has left them.”
We have the body of his son but I couldn’t tell him. I had to bury him with all the others.
Most of the corpses are unidentified. If the bodies have any identification on them at all, most of it is forged, Hazar says. The only thing that can be done is to remember where the bodies are buried should anybody come looking for them later, and want to identify them. “The only thing we really know about them is the place of their burial,” Hazar says.
Many of those killed are Iraqis who joined the IS group but there are also foreigners among the dead.
“The Iraqi Kurdish military bury the IS dead on the spot in order to avoid any possible problems with diseases,” Jamal Eminki, chief of staff of the Iraqi Kurdish forces, also known as the Peshmerga, told NIQASH. “There is no way we can transport the bodies anywhere else because of the fighting.”
The Kurdistan Clerics' Federation says that they are sure the corpses are being “treated in a humane manner”. Usually there are no actual clerics at the burial though, the organisation’s head, Abdullah Mulla Sayed says, due to security conditions.
At one stage there was even a suggestion that all the corpses be brought to one graveyard so as to create a kind of monument to this war. The site could also be used to raise money for the families of the dead.
“But the council at the Ministry did not approve this idea,” says Mariwan Naqshbandi, spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, who suggested the plan. “Because they were concerned that later on, the dead might be considered by some to be righteous men later.”
In mid-January authorities in the Kirkuk area buried more than 80 corpses in a mass grave in the Banja Ali area. Most of them were killed when the IS group launched a surprise attack on the city of Kirkuk in October 2016.
The bodies were kept for a certain amount of time, in the hopes that families would come and claim their relatives, explains Sardar Ali, of the Kirkuk municipal authority. Some of the dead were claimed by relatives but those who were not, were simply buried.
“We had to deal with the bodies as unidentified because none carried any ID,” Ali told NIQASH. “But we also did DNA tests so that we can give these to families of the fighters if they come looking for them.”
The Independent Commission for Human Rights in Iraqi Kurdistan has sent letters to a number of different offices requesting that the IS corpses be treated humanely and that they should not be used in any humiliating manner. The letter was sent to both the local military and to media organisations.
“The IS corpses should be buried in easily identifiable places and according to international standards,” says Diya Butros, the head of the Commission. “The IDs of the those buried should be put into glass bottles and then left there, so their families can identify them later. Improper actions taken against the dead are also human rights violations.”
However, many of those suggestions are not necessarily being implemented. Butros says this is understandable. “The situation is not stable and we are in a state of war.”
In general, it is clear there is no overarching plan for the corpses of the IS group fighters and they are being buried and identified by a number of different organisations and authorities during the course of the security crisis.
For example, Hazar of the military police, says he was going up a mountain near Khazar when he got a call from someone in Mosul to ask if he knew anything about the fate of his son, who had joined the IS group.
“We have the body of his son but I couldn’t tell him this,” Hazar says. And because the Iraqi Kurdish authorities haven’t decided what should be done with the enemy corpses, or if they should facilitate the bodies being given back to grieving families, Hazar says he has no choice but to bury the body of that particular man, in the same way he has buried all the other IS corpses.