Iraqi volunteers retrieve bodies from Tigris river
27 July 2006
by Jamie Tarabay
There are local Iraqi volunteers who line the river bank in Kadhimiya; they are volunteers on the lookout for the bodies that float downstream and sometimes get caught in the reeds. One man, 18-year-old Ali Ghanem, has been doing this every day since last winter. He's said to be the best swimmer of the group.
Recently, he pulled out eight bodies. A day before that, it was 11. He says he's used to it now. Sometimes he pulls the bodies by their clothes, or from the hands. He says he's now used to the smell.
Many of the bodies have been tortured. Ahmed Hussein lost his nephew, who was kidnapped along with two of his friends not too long ago. He says their bodies turned up later in the river.
"You cannot imagine the way they were tortured. I haven't seen anything like it," Hussein said. "They used to say Saddam executes people and grinds their bodies up, but it is nothing compared to this. It's so horrible."
The bodies are often dumped in the Tigris up north, and then float down towards Kadhimiya. Abu Saif says he watches the news on television every day, and if there's a report on killings upstream, everyone comes to the river the next day to wait for the bodies to appear.
He said recently, more than 50 Iraqi police were ambushed in Taji, north of Baghdad. The day after the ambush, volunteers in Kadhimiya pulled out 13 bodies of men wearing police uniforms.
Abu Saif says volunteers have retrieved more than 400 bodies from the river in just two months. Families post pictures of the missing on boards near the place where the bodies are brought in. One resident, Ali al Saadi, uses his video camera to record each body that is recovered, so locals have proof for authorities who might accuse them of actually killing the victims.
Volunteers do it alone
The volunteers don't get any help from the authorities. The river police claim they aren't allowed to act without orders, even if it means retrieving a body stuck in the middle of the river at 2 a.m., a time when it is dangerous for the swimmers to try.
"It's a shame for Iraqis to say they have a government, because our government hasn't done a thing for the people," Saadi said. "It's impossible to say they've done something."
Then the divers spot a body. It's still far away, at least 500 feet, but they're so accustomed to watching the river they know what to look for now. The men, some with their trousers rolled up to their knees, the others in long shorts, charge into the river, calling to each other to bring the body in. As they call for rope, they look at the corpse and call out "It's a man, he's been burnt."
More volunteers sprinkle rose water to mask the smell of rotting flesh filling the air. They wrap a white cotton sheet around the body, praying "There is no God but God" as they work. For one man, the smell is too much, and he stands to the side and vomits.
As some of the men tend to the body, Mohammed Qasim calls the local police, something he says he's been doing since the morning. The police usually come and collect the bodies and take them to the morgue. Two of the bodies have been laying near the river bank since 4 in the morning and their smell is everywhere.
"This is the fifth time we've called you," Qasim says into the phone. "We've just pulled a third one out. The smell is everywhere, the sun is on them." The policeman on the other end assures Qasim they will eventually come, but Qasim doesn't believe him.
"They won't come," he said. "We wait two, three hours. Either they come or they don't. I've been calling them since four in the morning. They haven't come.”
When they finish, the swimmers stand at the bank, breathing heavily. They don't get paid for what they do. They say it's their religious duty. They could use life jackets, though. One of them asks for a motor boat. Ali Imad shushes him and says "forget the boat;" a life jacket and plastic gloves would be more than enough.
"At least it would help us swim, and helps us when we pull the body," he said. "Our lungs get filled with water, no one will bring us gloves."
Imad says the police have all the equipment to do the job but refuse to: They come, "wearing gloves and show off, but they refuse to carry the body. They say they'll get dirty."
Soon after they see another body, and dive into the river to retrieve it.