Every chapter of Iraq’s modern history can be seen in the sprawling cemetery of Wadi al-Salam outside the holy city of Najaf. Its sandy expanse is growing, this time with coronavirus victims.
A special burial ground near the cemetery has been created specifically for COVID-19 victims because such burials have been rejected by Baghdad cemeteries and other places in Iraq.
In Iraq, the virus has been surrounded by stigma, driven by religious beliefs, customs and a deep mistrust of the healthcare system.
Iraq has recorded close to 132,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 5,000 deaths.
Overseeing the New Wadi al-Salam (or Valley of Peace) cemetery and helping with the burial procedures are Iraqi Shia volunteers from the Imam Ali Combat Division.
Corpses of the virus victims arrive at night in body bags driven by ambulances and burial procedures take place at daybreak.
In the past four months, more than 3,000 bodies have been buried here, said Sarmad Khalaf Ibrahim. He said the cemetery receives victims from all religions and is not limited to Muslims only.
“We had more than four or five [burials] of the Christian religion. They were buried with special ceremonies, appropriate and befitting them according to their request,” Ibrahim said.
Iraq’s centralised healthcare system, largely unchanged since the 1970s, has been worn down by decades of war, sanctions and prolonged unrest since the 2003 invasion by the United States.
The government hospitals in Baghdad are overwhelmed, barely able to handle the increasing numbers.
Najaf’s Wadi al-Salam cemetery, 160km (99 miles) south of Baghdad, is believed to be one of the largest in the world and is the final resting place of choice for pious Shia Muslims because of its proximity to the shrine of Imam Ali, the much revered 7th-century founder of their sect.
It includes those killed in Iraq’s long war in the 1980s with Iran, those slain in the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion, as well as Shia fighters who fought ISIL (or ISIS) group in recent years.