In Falluja, Finding a Place for the Dead

April 27, 2004 | New York Times


FALLUJA, Iraq — The paint on the gravestones is as red as blood. And on some of them, it has not yet dried.

“A young brother and sister are buried here,” said one of the gravediggers, who gave only his first name, Hamza, as he pointed to two crudely cut blocks propped up on a dirt mound.

The place where the dead lie in this town, 30 miles west of Baghdad, was once a soccer stadium named the Falluja Sports Club. But now, after more than three weeks of fighting between American marines and insurgents, it is known as the Falluja Martyrs Cemetery.

Smeared in hand-written Arabic lettering on the stone markers were the names of Amal and Mustafa Alawi, killed in the Hay Julan district, a poor neighborhood in Falluja where much of the fighting has taken place.

“There are 250 people buried here from American strikes on houses,” said Nasser, another gravedigger. “We have stacked up the bodies one on top of the other.”

In a town where the streets were almost deserted on this afternoon, the makeshift cemetery was a place where the headstones were silent witnesses, yielding a small part of the Iraqi side of the battlefield story.

The gravediggers said that the cemetery was full of women and children. And there were headstones attesting to the graves beneath holding civilian victims, marked “child,” for example. But there were also signs of fallen fighters — some of the headstones bore the Arabic word for “hero” painted alongside the names.

As in many conflicts, there were unanswered questions. One headstone read simply “unknown,” but it named the place where the person had been killed, Hay Askari, a district in this town of about 300,000 where some of the fighting has taken place since the American siege started early this month.

And there were also the ongoing sounds of battle, belying the shaky truce.

“Hear that?” said a man as the rattle of machine-gun fire and thump of explosions echoed in the distance. He was milling around the cemetery with some other residents, as well as a few fighters, their faces shrouded with Arabic scarves and their hands clutching automatic weapons. They all came to an abrupt standstill to listen to the sudden sounds of renewed combat.

The Iraqi Ministry of Health has tried to piece together the number of Iraqis killed in the fighting, in which American forces have used warplanes, attack helicopters and tanks against the mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire of the guerrillas.

The ministry said that 271 people had been killed since the start of the offensive on April 5. Local doctors quoted by news agencies have given figures more than double that.

Judging by the littered cemetery grounds, bodies had been brought here from hospitals or ambulance medics. Rubber surgical gloves and masks had been tossed amid the graves. Boxes of incense lay spent and discarded, and dried palm fronds were stuck into the dirt of the mounded plots.

More room was being made for future casualties between the goal posts of the large soccer pitch in the center of the stadium, where the turf had been tilled with rows of trenches deep enough to stand in.

“There are still a lot of bodies out there,” said Hamza. “But we can’t get them because of the fighting.”

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