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The Corpse Trade in Iraq - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Asharq Al-Awsat, London – Ahmed Nizar Abdulaziz, a former officer in the Iraqi army who lives with his family in the al Khadra district in west Baghdad, was kidnapped from his home at midnight by one of the armed militia groups. He was then killed.

So far Ahmed’s story resembles many of those unfolding in present-day Baghdad; in fact, it is almost the norm considering the events taking place today. What is astonishing, however, is that his body was taken and delivered to another party, which then contacted the family of the deceased to demand huge sums of money in return for the body.

This phenomenon has come to be known as the ‘corpse trade’; individuals or groups look for bodies lying on the streets or elsewhere so they can use them to haggle with the families of the victims in return for money. And thus emerges the latest innovation devised by Iraq’s death traders.

According to Muwafaq, Ahmed Abdulaziz’s younger brother, “We were anticipating the customary phone call demanding a ransom for his release or with information as to the location of the body after he was kidnapped. But a week after the abduction, we received a call from the people we had suspected and they were demanding US $50,000 for his release. After long negotiations, we agreed to pay US $35,000 for my brother’s release.”

Muwafaq continued, “Negotiations had reached the stage where we were deciding on a time and place to receive my brother – after handing over the agreed ransom. The location to deliver the money was determined, after many changes were made in the space of an hour that they could ensure we would not try to con or ambush them, or bring the police into it. When we delivered the money in a remote area called Ziraa Digla, they said ‘we will call you tomorrow to let you know when and where you can find your son’.”

But it was a long wait. Muwafaq added, “The operation through which we delivered the money and the handing over of the kidnapped person is like a ‘Hollywood’ action movie in which the most likely loser is the victim. You are dealing with a gang of criminals and you are forced to trust them so that you don’t blame yourself later. You say to yourself, ‘if I submit to them now, my brother may still be alive.’ They used to call us using my brother’s mobile phone and they used to demand a sum of money to add credit to the phone line.”

Mujahid, another of Ahmed’s brothers said, “We remained in a tense state while we waited for them to call and inform us of the location and time to pick up my brother. Every time we called, the phone was switched off. They are clever in these matters.”

He added: “Finally, they called us after 10pm and told us that my brother was at the Mohammed Sakran cemetery in West Baghdad, which is at the furthest point away from where we had delivered the ransom. We called the police to request permission to enter the Mohammed Sakran cemetery at night since the authorities have [night] curfews in place. One of the patrolling police officers accompanied us there while we were fervently hoping to find our brother after this long absence. When we got to the agreed designated area, we found nothing. We kept calling his name at the tops of our voices but there was no answer. After a search that lasted more than 10 minutes, we found my brother’s body near the main road. He had been killed by two bullets in his head and his hands were tied behind his back. We later discovered from the doctor at the al Tib al Adli morgue that my brother was killed on the night he was abducted.”

Muwafaq explains that, “a day after we found the body, the person who had taken the money called us and confirmed that they had found my brother dead, not alive, and that they had only sold us his body.”

Umm Ahmed, 46 years old, from Biyaa recounts the story of her husband’s abduction saying, “We used to wait for him every day in Ramadan and he used to arrive before the Maghreb (sunset) prayers. On the 17th day of Ramadan, my husband did not arrive on time; in fact he disappeared for the next few days. We received a call from a person we did not know who said he meant goodwill and that he was a God-fearing person and respectful of the merciful month of Ramadan. After a long lecture, he informed us that he had found my husband’s body and that my husband had died in a bombing. The unknown man stated that he had fulfilled his Shariah duty and buried my husband in Karbala.”

“The news came as a shock us,” she continued, “it traumatized me and my three children and my husband’s brothers. When we asked the location of my husband’s grave, this ‘good-doer’ told us that there had been a lot of expenses and risks. He asked us to pay US $10,000 only so that he could lead us to my husband’s grave. After some negotiations that did not last long, we agreed to pay US $6,000. We then got to my husband’s grave where he was buried in a plot of land outside of Karbala. We noticed that there were many similar graves that had metal plates bearing numbers rather than names.”

Umm Ahmed explained, “We weren’t even sure it was my husband’s grave until he was taken out and we took him to a doctor at al Tib al Adli morgue to obtain a death certificate.”

There are many similar stories in Iraq, which is regularly witnessing blind acts of violence. Many of the families of the kidnapped people have not found their loved ones – or their bodies yet.

Sajida Mohammed, a resident of the Saydia district in Iraq and the mother of two boys and a girl hopes she can locate her husband’s body after he was abducted on al Rashid Street last April whilst he was buying some spare parts for his car. He was held at gunpoint and pushed into the trunk of the car in front of the people on the street.

“We sold two cars and all our gold so we could put together the sum of US $30,000. We delivered [the money] to the kidnappers who promised they would return my husband the next day but that never happened and my husband never returned and we have not even fond his body.”

The stricken wife stated, “I only need reassurance; I only want to know if he is alive or dead and I’m willing to pay any amount only to be sure, or to speak to him, even if only by telephone, or to see his body if they have killed him. It is difficult to remain anxious like this, not knowing if he is alive or dead,” she said.

But it is not difficult for the corpse traders to find their wares since the bodies lying strewn on public streets and on the pavements and in remote areas have become a regular sight in Iraq in general and in Baghdad in particular.

On my last visit to Baghdad, I was in a car with a friend and we were crossing the road between al Mansur district, near the Karkh area and the Waziriya district near the al Rusafa area when I saw people lying by the Corniche al Azamiya. I thought they were sleeping but my friend assured me they were unidentified dead bodies, which the police cars, or the local municipality, or sometimes the Ministry of Health, come to collect later.”

Three days later I was horrified at the sight of a small pick-up truck that had a governmental license plate (Interior Ministry) carrying several corpses, piled up one on top of the other. A stream of fresh blood was trickling down from the car to leave a dark red line on the asphalt road marking the distance that the car traversed in the residential neighborhood near Karkh in Baghdad.

In the past, even only last year, the murderers from the militias would discard their victims near the al Tib al Adli morgue or near a mosque or a Shia shrine or in some remote place. Some of the governmental entities collect the bodies and deliver them to the al Tib al Adli morgue to be stored until one of the relatives comes to inquire and takes it away for burial. It is likely that the director of the morgue complained because of the incoming volume of unidentified corpses.

A doctor at al Tib al Adli described the process of storing the corpses: “We photograph the faces of the victims and give every body a number and then store it in a fridge. The pictures and numbers of the victims are then placed on a bulletin board that is hung on the entrance of the morgue. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians come to check it on a daily basis in search of their missing fathers and sons.”

The young doctor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said, “It is a new and low profession that has emerged from the trade of corpses that we call ‘unidentified’. One of these professions is the theft of the actual bodies so that they can be sold to the families of the victim.”

He added: “When Iraqis don’t find their brothers or sons in the al Tib al Adli morgue in Baghdad, they begin to search in other hospital and morgues outside of Baghdad. Some commission others to look for the bodies of their relatives. These people can usually be found in the proximity of the al Tib al Adli offering their services to the families of victims for considerable sums of money.”

The captain of the al Mansour police station disclosed that a gang had been arrested after it had monopolized control of the huge refrigerators in Baghdad and outside of it. These fridges originally rented by some traders to store food were now under the control of these armed gangs who use them to store stolen bodies.

At the same time, some unidentified parties stated that they had volunteered to bury these bodies “to honor them”. These parties would collect the bodies from the streets or from nearby the al Tib al Adli building to bury them in remote places, after which they would give them numbers following taking a picture of the victims’ faces. The information is then documented and registered in a special file.

However, it later transpired that these parties, after collecting the full information, would then contact the families of the victims and demand money in return for telling them the location of their sons’ graves. The sums of money sometimes reach US $10,000.

No one knows the exact number of Iraqi civilians killed since the American occupation in 2003. There is no official or even semi-official census; likewise, there is no accurate death toll for the multinational allied forces of which the US forces comprise the largest percentage. Human rights organizations consider this lack of accurate governmental census for the victims of acts of violence a humanitarian disaster.

Asharq Al-Awsat made great efforts through several contacts and phone calls in the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the Interior Ministry to find out the official or semi-official figures for the number of victims, both of civilians and military personnel, including police forces, but was surprised to receive the response that they “were not authorized to reveal the figures.”

The Minister of Human Rights, Wijdan Salim said, “the figures that we have are obtained from newspapers or other forms of media. We cannot disclose them since they will be considered official if they were issued by us.” She pointed out, “the Ministry of Health and the Interior Ministry abstain from giving us the real figures of the victims both civilians and military personnel.”

After the realization that the road to finding out the figures was a dead end, I contacted Jinah Hammoud, the media coordinator for the multinational forces’ press office in Iraq and was surprised when he informed me that no such information was readily available.

Still persevering, I thought perhaps the answer would lie outside of Iraq and thus contacted the Iraqi department of the World Heath Organization (WHO), which is based in Amman, Jordan. The answer was no different. According to the source I spoke to over the phone, “we do not know the number of victims because the Iraqi Ministry of Health does not send us such information,” he said.

It seems that the Iraqi government regards the number of Iraqi civilian victims a national secret that should not be disclosed. When the head of forensics once revealed some information that was related to the number of Iraqi victims, the former Iraqi government was enraged to the point where he had to flee the country to one of the Gulf states to escape the threat of death.

However, a senior-ranking source in the Iraqi Ministry of Health confirmed last month that, “the number of Iraqi civilian victims of war and acts of violence has currently reached over 150,000 – which is triple the quoted official figure.” But officials affirm that, “the number of victims stated by this official is derived from the estimates of the number of bodies brought into the hospitals and the al Tib al Adli morgue from all over the country.”

It is said that the number of victims who have fallen in Iraq since the American occupation has become a thorny matter since figures range from 50,000 to 650,000. There is no precedence of any official entity announcing its estimates of the number of victims. The aforementioned Iraqi official continued to say that he had reached that figure based on the 100 bodies brought into the hospitals and morgues in Iraq on a daily basis.

Last month the Lancet Medical Journal published a study that said that approximately 655,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war. This figure exceeds all published estimates. US President George W. Bush and some of the senior officials in his administration have dismissed the findings of the aforesaid study and declared that it lacked credibility upon the consideration that it relied on models rather than a physical body count of actual corpses.

Previously, it was widely believed that approximately 50,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war. However, the head of the al Tib al Adli morgue in Baghdad told the BBC that his ‘area’ alone receives 60 bodies daily who are victims of acts of violence.

The Iraqi government has said that the number of civilian deaths had decreased last June since last February’s implementation of the Baghdad security plan. It has announced that last month the number of victims had decreased by 36 percent making June’s death toll 1,227, compared to May in which there were 1949 civilian fatalities.

There has also been a decrease in the number of casualties last month, the bodies of whom are found on a daily basis in the capital and on the outskirts ranging from 40-50 corpses to 20-30. The government has stated that 222 policeman were killed last month, which is a figure that far surpasses any other previous census. However, it is not possible for independent entities to verify the new figures and statistics announced by the new government since it is believed that a considerable amount of the killings in the country are not reported.

Still the more critical question remains: if the Iraqi government does not have the figures for the civilian casualties, does it know what becomes of the bodies?

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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