Relatives mourn as they transport bodies out of west Mosul. (photo: Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty)
Every time I visit Mosul now, I find myself drawn to the old city – that section of Mosul that is oldest, where some of the fiercest fighting occurred between the extremist group known as the Islamic State and Iraq’s pro-government forces. Whenever I go there, I find that there are more war stories to hear. On this particular visit I ended up at the Um al-Tisaa graveyard. This is where many civilians killed during fighting in the city were buried.
Whenever I come here, I feel better actually. Because I see so many other families who have lost more than me, sometimes three or more loved ones.
The cemetery takes up about a square kilometre and has been through several different incarnations. It used to be a graveyard for the locals who lived in the old city. Then the bodies of the dead were removed, and it became a park, which it remained during the time that the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group controlled the northern city.
I am joined here by a local man, Mohammed Bassem. He points across the cemetery, at a house. “That’s my place,” he says. “During the fighting, I saw dozens of people – women, children, men, young, old – buried here. This park is planted with the bodies of victims,” he said.
“When the fighting got worse and people were dying all around us, I chose a spot where I could be buried with my family,” he continues. “I thought we wouldn’t survive. But I eventually gave up the spot. The cemetery is so small. I gave it up to a family whose house was bombed and who all died. Seven of them. We buried them. We cried.”
Now Bassem shows another grave to a man who just joined us, Mohammed Hadid. He left Mosul in 2015 and only returned after the IS group had been forced out.
“This is where we buried your brother,” Bassem tells him. Hadid’s brother died in shelling in April 2017. “But after the city was liberated, your family came to take the remains to another cemetery on the outskirts of the city.”
“Whenever I come here, I feel better actually,” Hadid told me. “Because I see so many other families who have lost more than me, sometimes three or more loved ones.”
The graves here are very close together. They must have been dug with shaking hands, as the diggers would have said their goodbyes, then run back to take shelter from the bombs. There are reports that people were buried while planes flew overhead. While fighting was going on here it was too difficult and dangerous for the locals to leave, so they buried the bodies where they could. The names of the dead have been handwritten on pieces of stone or wood.
Now from a distance, I watch another man; he is hunched over and carries a bag as he makes his way between the graves. The old man is walking slowly as if he is worried about stepping on the dead people beneath him. He stops at three graves next to one another and then takes out a plastic bottle of water. He sprinkles water on the dusty graves and begins to read the first verses of the Koran, asking for God’s mercy and guidance.
Bassem noticed me looking and told me the man’s name was Qusay Abu Hussein, a resident of the Mashada neighbourhood, close to the cemetery. “And he comes here every day, the poor guy,” Bassem explains. “He lost his kids.”
Cautiously I approached him. Abu Hussein looked so sad I barely dared to speak to him. Eventually he told me that he had buried his two sons here, Hussein and Ali, as well his daughter, Sumayah. A mortar shell had landed on the family’s house. “I come here to visit them every day and to read for them,” he told me. “Hussein was just 20 and he was always with me, helping me with work.”
Abu Hussein is clearly not the only regular visitor. I saw fresh flowers and pieces of chocolate on one of the graves. Some families have already removed the bodies of their loved ones from this hastily constructed burial ground, taking them to a more permanent cemetery.
Near the graveyard there are still teams of locals recovering corpses. “From June 2017 until today we have recovered 2,653 bodies,” reports Duraid Hazem Mohammed, who heads the committee for removal of corpses on Mosul’s municipal authority. ”We gave the bodies to their families and we have also provided areas for mass graves outside the city, where the bodies of IS fighters can be buried.”
None of that really matters to Abu Hussein though. ”I will try and keep my children here,” he says, a tear spilling down his cheek. ”I want to keep visiting them here. Nothing else really matters and nothing can compensate for the loss of my children. I will keep on living, but it will be with a broken heart.”
And with that, he sprayed the graves with water one more time, damping down the dust, and left the same way he came, treading gingerly between the tightly packed graves so as not to stand on anyone else’s children.