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Story And Photos by Rita Leistner
The Holy City of Najaf—the desert City of the Dead—s under siege. The Mahdi Army, supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have taken over the Imam Ali Shrine in the center of Najaf and are fighting Iraqi and American forces day and night, often waging war from the underground catacombs. If they fall as martyrs here, the Mahdi fighters will be buried just outside, in the sacred sand of Najaf's sprawling cemetery.
     For Shi'ite Muslims, the cemetery at Najaf is the holiest resting place of all, the final frontier of all final frontiers.

Najaf, Iraq, 2004
Billows of smoke rise over Najaf's cemetery from strike points of American fighter bombs near the Imam Ali Shrine.
“Millions are buried here—corpses upon corpses, generations upon generations,” gravedigger Rahim Naji told me. “ People from all over the world Shi'ite, Sunni, Christian, even Jewish. Death is our business, and Najaf never turns away the dead.” The cemetery lies just north of the shrine, spanning over three miles outward in a great semicircle. “ Najaf is like a port for the dead,” he added.
     But for the gravediggers of Najaf, business under fire was both bad and deadly. “We have suffered many casualties,” said Wathiq Hamid, lifting his shirt to show his shrapnel wounds. “My uncle was killed in a mortar attack the first Thursday of the aggressions. We were in the old section of the cemetery performing burials. It was three days before I could come back to recover his body. There are abandoned coffins we haven't been able to retrieve, and the dogs have got at them.”
    At dusk the American bombardments intensify: the sound of fighter planes come first, followed by tiny black specks trailing white smoke. You can't hear the explosions when standing upwind, but moments later huge billows of gray black rise in the distance over the cemetery from strike points near the shrine. The gravediggers were forced out of their offices in the middle of the battle, off to the far end of the graveyard, known as the new graveyard. Yet even there, tombs were destroyed by mortars and bombs.
    Grave digging in Najaf is a family affair, handed down through generations. “Before the war, when business was good, we would see 80 to 120 bodies coming in a day,” Rahim told me. “Today we have buried five. A few Mahdi fighters have been brought to us, but most of them have been placed in temporary graves around the city.” In the new graveyard itself, some corpses were placed
Millions are buried here—corpses upon corpses, generations upon generations in temporary graves until the fighting was over and the gravediggers could attempt to relocate the bodies into prepaid family plots located in the middle of the still-raging battle. “God willing, some of the graves will be left standing,” Rahim added.
     The cemetery is now riddled with mines and unexploded cluster bombs from both sides, and it will be a long time before the gravediggers can go back in without fear of being blown up. The ground is littered with dry old bones from upturned and bombed-out tombs. The morning after a phase of fighting ended we went to seek out the Mahdi fighters' temporary graves and found dozens poking out from little sand heaps. If a grave was marked, it was with a scrap of paper or cardboard slid into a plastic water bottle. Down the road the gravediggers had returned to their offices and were volunteering to bury Mahdi guerrillas, whose bodies
were being brought in by the truckload. Twenty had come in before noon. “Some of the Mahdi fighters had their names written on pieces of papers in their clothing,” said the gravedigger Mohamed, who didn't want us to use his family name. “But many cannot be identified. The Najaf police wanted to dishonor the bodies—they removed their identifications, so they would be buried namelessly.”
     People travel great distances to be buried here. Seventy-year-old Auda Misher Hamad left Basra at 7 a.m. for the five-hour trip to Najaf, carrying the body of his sister-in-law on the roof of his sedan. The temperature hovered above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. “It''s very difficult in this heat,” he said. “We performed burial rites and prayers at home, and then kept her body in an air-conditioned room overnight.” Road travel was complicated with checkpoints slowing movement and forcing detours. “I needed

Najaf, Iraq, 2004
Gravediggers read rites over the corpse of an unidentified fighter from Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mahdi army.
petrol, but the lines for gas were so long I was worried about the body decomposing. Thank God the other vehicles let us go ahead of them.” One family bringing in a dead relative told us they were shot at by Iraqi police on the road between Karbala and Najaf.
     Traditionally, bodies arriving in Najaf are meant to be taken to the Imam Ali Shrine for prayers before being brought to the gravediggers. But under the circumstances, the gravediggers—who are typically university educated and often have clerical training— were performing all the rites.
     As we approached the gravesite in the soaring noon heat, the putrid odor of rotting corpses was stultifying. A gravedigger walked among the bodies distributing spritzes of perfume. More corpses were brought in, each having been prepared according to Shariah, Islamic law.
This means first washing the body and removing all jewelry, if there is any, then wrapping it in a clean, white sheet of cloth. The grave is not deep enough until the digger can stand in it chest high. This is to prevent odor from rising from the grave and attracting animals. At the base of the deep, narrow grave, the digger makes a body-length extension long enough to place the corpse horizontally. The corpse is slid into the hole feet first and then laid carefully on its right side, its face pointed toward Mecca. Once the body is in place, bricks are handed down into the grave to seal up the hole. A moment later, the gravedigger climbs out of the hole, and a young apprentice fills it in with sand. The diggers all gather round, and a little pile of sand is built up on top of the grave, the identification water bottle stuck in. Burning incense is placed around the sand, and the prayer rites are performed.
     When I'd first met Rahim, a week earlier, he had held out his fists with a pile of sand in each to show me: “See this? This is the sand of the Holy Land. Everyone wants to be buried here.” A week later, I watched as the rites were read over the corpse of an unidentified fighter: “Allah Akbar, God is great. Allah, the person lying before you is your creation. If he was a sinner, please forgive him; if he was good, please bless him.” A moment of silence, and they moved on to the next plot.   

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