Corpses of Mosul still smell like death a year after the Iraqi city is liberated from ISIS

Sroor Al-Hosayni, 23, a nurse from Mosul, leads a volunteer team inside a home packed with bodies of killed ISIS fighters or civilians.MOSUL – When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the war-devastated city of Mosul almost a year ago, he declared it liberated from the Islamic State.

But even when departed, the jihadists exerts a morbid authority in Iraq’s second-largest city.

Today, a putrid odor rises from the thousands of corpses – both civilians and Islamic State fighters – in the rubble of bombed out buildings, tossed in roadside rubbish heaps and in and around the Tigris River.

“The sight and smell of these corpses is a constant reminder of our darkest days,” said Ayoub Thanoun, a 26-year-old pharmacy assistant who survived Islamic State’s five-month long occupation of Mosul and now works to clear neighbors of debris. “A large number of bodies are scattered the houses, gardens, squares and even in some of our mosques.”

Piles of bricks and stones, often from ancient buildings, are common throughout Mosul.

With the race for Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary election underway, Mosul candidates are planting their campaign banners atop the wreckage.

“The politicians are holding electioneering feasts on top of the bodies,” said Shihab Ahmed, a 28-year-old resident of the Bab Lagash district.

About 100,000 people once lived in Mosul’s one-square-mile Old City before the Islamic State occupied the neighborhood. The UN estimates that more than 90 percent of the district was demolished in the fighting.

Even before the war, death was a constant presence in Bab Lagash, where most working-age males were employed as marble tombstone engravers before the invasion and the government’s retaking of the city last summer.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the of the Old City, and while there are many historic buildings officials need to preserve and protect, the government should do something to help the volunteers who have been working so hard to clear the corpses out of this neighborhood,” Ahmed said.

The task of body removal is dangerous.

“Often the bodies of ISIS fighters are just dumped in a place and when we come to lift and remove them we find they’re still strapped to explosive vests or there are bombs hidden in the piles of corpses,” said Omar Mohammed, 30, an Old Mosul resident.

Doctors said the city is overwhelmed by the unremoved corpses.

“We are all vexed with how to deal with the bodies,” said Ma’an Al Jammal, a 26-year-old doctor at the Nineveh Medical College. “The residents themselves are applying some sort of quarantine, but some have been injured from hidden explosives.”

The decomposing bodies are also unhealthful.

“We are lucky that the main supply of Mosul’s drinking water from the Tigris is located far north of the city” said Al Jammal who agrees with an assessment by the World Health Organization determining that the downstream population is at risk of gastroenteritis from partially treated water with exposure to the bodies.

Last month, the United Nations held a workshop in the city to bring together officials and residents to come up with a plan to remove what it estimates to be 8 million tons of conflict debris.

The volume of the wreckage is equivalent to three massive piles the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

“Unplanned disposal of debris can create serious health and environmental risks and burdensome economic liabilities in the future,” said Hassan Partow, a UN Environment Program Manager who is working with the Mosul municipality to develop a strategy for rubble clearance.

Sroor Al-Hosayni, a 23-year-old nurse, isn’t waiting for the government to remove the bodies left on the ground and inside demolished homes in her neighborhood.

On Thursday, Al-Hosayni was leading her team of 30 volunteers pulling the dead out of the dirt and debris and bagging then in white plastic sacks.

“We gathered fifty-two bodies here and then the municipality takes them to be dumped,” Al-Hosayni said after spending the day retrieving the dead from the Old City’s Qulay’at District, scene of some of the fiercest battles between government troops and the Islamic State.

Dignified burial for the dead became Al-Hosayni’s mission after her 14-year-old sister Nibras was killed in last year’s fighting. Her father died of a heart attack shortly after an airstrike.

“I promised the security forces to work for them as a nurse if they would help me bury my sister,” said Al-Hosayni who now runs courses to train others in safe removal.

The training includes the use of protective gear including gloves and masks and how to treat scorpion bites, a common hazard when removing bodies from the charred remains of the homes and shops of the ancient city.

“The areas smell of death, it’s awful, but we have gotten used to it,” said Al-Hosayni, who said city officials suggested she let street dogs eat the bodies. “There are lots of rats and cats, but no dogs. I told them there were not enough dogs to eat the corpses. There are thousands of bodies.”

Prime Minister al-Abadi has said that the civilian death toll in Mosul was almost 1,300. But that number has been challenged by independent monitoring groups and the Associated Press which in December estimated that as many as 11,000 civilians perished.

So far, Al-Hosayni and her volunteers have removed 860 bodies.

“In many ways I’m doing this work in memory of my sister and my father,” said Al-Hosayni. “Dad taught me that actively caring for others is the best answer to the atrocities of the Islamic State.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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