Almost every day, Ali Nasser watches friends, neighbours and strangers standing a distance away from one another, distressed and sad, forced to farewell their loved ones without ever touching them.
By Murtada al-Hadoud, in Dhi Qar
That’s because Nasser is an ambulance driver and his job lately has been transporting those who have died as a result of the coronavirus, Covid-19, from the province of Dhi Qar to their final resting place, a large cemetery in Najaf.
The 30-year-old previously worked as an ambulance driver for the so-called Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU – former volunteer militias called up to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State. During that time, he saw terrible things as he also carried those who had been shot, killed, bombed or tortured during those violent conflicts. But he says that this is much worse because Iraqis are fighting an invisible and confusing enemy, rather than an overt and obvious one.
His day usually begins very early, at the local mortuary, where he parks to collect bodies of the dead. He wears protective clothing, a mask, gloves and special shoes and he also sterilizes his ambulance.
“Usually I am accompanied by one of the deceased’s relatives as well as a representative of the hospital and then we go to collect the bodies, which have been prepared in large black body bags,” Nasser explains.
Dhi Qar has the second highest number of Covid-19 casualties after the capital, Baghdad. In just one month, the state sent 300 people to be buried in Najaf, near Wadi Al Salam, a historic site and one of the largest graveyards in the world, reserved for Shiite Muslims.
Nasser can take five people per journey and he finds it tragic that these family members didn’t undergo the normal funeral rituals and prayers because of the virus.
“I drive the bodies alone, with nobody beside me. They are behind me in a refrigerated area,” he describes the trip. “Then behind my vehicle, are cars carrying the relatives of the deceased who accompany their loved one on this leg of the final journey. Their journey must end at the Kafal area, near the entrance to Najaf city though. They are forbidden to come any further and they have to entrust me with the burial of their dead.”
Some of the poorer families don’t have enough money to rent a car to come to Kafal; they depend entirely on Nasser to convey their relative to his or her last resting place.
After passing through the Kafal checkpoint, he makes his to a new and increasingly crowded cemetery, especially for those suspected to have died of Covid-19.
“There I hand over the bodies to a team of workers. They wash and shroud the dead, while taking special precautions for hygiene. They also pray over the coffins,” Nasser recounts.
Once the rituals have been completed, the coffins are buried in graves dug by mechanical diggers. In the past, much of the digging was done by hand and Muslims are not usually buried in coffins. The pandemic has changed all that. As one of the burial team recites from the Koran, the digger piles dirt over the top of the coffins. Eventually a small headstone will be built too.
After he drops off the corpses, Nasser drives back to Dhi Qar again, alone. Up until recently he had not been returning home at all but instead to temporary accommodation nearer the morgue. “I didn’t want to endanger my family with infection at all,” he explains. “Anyway I barely sleep at the moment. I am too busy driving bodies back and forth. I have delivered 150 bodies to Najaf so far.”
Recently, several more vehicles were commissioned with doing the same job and Nasser was finally able to return home. He now lives in a room that is closed off from the rest of the household and he has become an unofficial adviser on health issues. Nasser says he regularly tells others what it has been like to bury the dead because he wants them to understand the dangers of the pandemic. The coronavirus endangers anyone and everyone, he says.