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River Of Death:
Iraqi Kurdish Call For Warning Signs After Record Number Of Drownings

Ramyar Jawad
Every year the Great Zab river in Iraqi Kurdistan claims local lives. This year has seen the highest number of drownings in the popular swimming spot since 2002.
25.08.2016  |  Erbil
Civil defence forces looking for corpses of the drowned on the Great Zab river. (photo: راميار جواد)
Civil defence forces looking for corpses of the drowned on the Great Zab river. (photo: راميار جواد)

It is a site for recreation, picnicking, fishing and tourism, even for a spot of washing up. But where the Great Zab river passes through Iraqi Kurdistan’s Khabat district, it is also becoming known as the river of death.

Every year a number of locals drown here – official figures say that 177 have lost their lives in this stretch of the river since 2002. In the first seven months of 2016, 27 people died here. This makes 2016 the worst for drownings on this river.

The stories of those who drowned here are varied. One of the recent deaths, on August 17, involves an Iraqi Kurdish soldier who survived the front lines, fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, returned home, went to the river for a swim and never came back. 

One incident from 1997 that everyone remembers involves five young girls who went to the river’s edge to wash dishes. All five fell in and only one was rescued. Presumed drowned, the other bodies were never found.

“A lot of young people come here just to hang out,” says Hikmat Saleh, 44, a member of Khabat’s civil defence force. “But many of them don’t know how to swim.”

Some people come here for entertainment and they never return home again. 

Further reasons for the high number of drownings include the muddy bottom which traps people’s feet and the cold temperature of the water which causes cramping and hypothermia. The river is also fast moving and the waters are dark.

Saleh and his colleagues are responsible for trying to help those who get in trouble, or for finding their corpses. When NIQASH spoke with him, he had just returned from searching for two more bodies. All of the above factors make finding the bodies of the drowned both difficult and dangerous for the team.

“The number who drowned here this year is too high,” says Haider Abu Bakr, director of Khabat’s civil defence team. “Nine couples were drowned. In previous years we only had individual drownings.”

The rescue teams don’t have the right equipment to find the bodies of the drowned. “We don’t have sonar or any other sensors,” Abu Bakr explains. “So when members of our team dive for the corpses, they are also risking their own lives.”


Civil defence members work the riverside.


Although the civil defence teams have tried to get the message across that this section of the Great Zab is dangerous, nobody seems to have paid much attention to them.

Locals also believe that the number of drownings is actually far higher than official figures would suggest. They often find corpses themselves and these are not registered by the authorities, only by grieving families.

Haj Mohammed Harki, 50, works as a fisherman on the river and says over the 23 years he’s been doing the job, he’s seen many accidents. He himself has pulled three corpses out of the river in his nets and he has heard rumours that as many as 700 people have drowned here since 1993.

 “This is a place of life – and death,” the fisherman says. “Some people come here for entertainment and they never return home again. Others come here empty handed and return home with enough to feed themselves and their families,” he muses philosophically.

Harki believes that the local authorities need to erect signs around the river pointing out which areas are more dangerous and which parts of the river are safer for swimming.

One local teen, Mohammed, agrees. “People can’t be blamed for getting in the water. There is no other place for them to swim and there is no warning here to alert them of the dangers,” Mohammed says.

Mohammed’s brother Yusuf, 11, went to the Great Zab to swim with friends at the beginning of this month, Mohammed adds. He never came back. 

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