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Dozens of makeshift cemeteries crop up across Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ten-year-old Saad Sammir offers a tour of his little cemetery on the grounds of the Al Askan Hospital:

"Here is a small mound of dirt, this is for a baby I buried. He was very little. Here is the biggest mound of dirt, a momma and her baby who died together. She was holding him very tight and we could not pry them apart, so we put them in the same hole . . ."

His is one of dozens of informal cemeteries that have cropped up in the Iraqi capital after the American invasion. The makeshift cemeteries are in city parks and highway medians, hospitals and mosque gardens. Some are in yards, and others are in vacant lots.

American military officials hoped to minimize the number of civilian deaths during the war, but a Knight Ridder survey of city hospitals indicates that at least 1,101 and perhaps as many as 2,356 civilians were killed in Baghdad.

Many died without identification and without company of living relatives, meaning no one was left to handle details, such as burials. Hundreds of people now walk from hospital to hospital in Baghdad, searching for signs of their loved ones, dead or alive.

When they come to Al Askan, where doctors recorded 600 dead as civilians, they talk to Saad. He wears dirty blue jeans and a pink T-shirt, and he smiles at them, tilting his head to show interest. When they ask for directions, he bounds off so that his thick black hair bounces, his feet skip down the 3-inch lanes around the graves.

Saad is here because many schools are still closed in the wake of war. Were they open, he would join his third-year classmates. But they are closed, so each morning he arrives with his uncle from their nearby home by 8 a.m. He leaves each night after 6. He guesses that he's helped dig 100 graves.

The cemetery is temporary. The hospital ground was designed as a place for the recovering to walk during recovery. Now the smell of the dead is overpowering, and few aside from Saad, his uncle and the grieving come near.

There are150 graves, only 64 of them still occupied. The graves are no more than 2 feet deep, and some are simply at ground level, with dirt from a nearby hole piled on top. Hands stick out the sides of some, and feet out of others.

Saad smiles. He is paid 1,000 dinars for each body that he buries, or reburies. For the first few weeks, that meant as much as 7,000 dinars a day, or about $2 a day at the old rate; at the new rate, it would total almost $4 a day.

"It is a lot of money," he says. "I use it to buy food and share some of that with my friends. Some also I give to the poor, because they are hungry. But it is a lot of money."

Saad keeps a supply of surgical masks behind a nearby bush, and each time a visitor arrives he rushes up to offer the masks, before the visitor chokes on the smell.

Most of the graves are unmarked, except for small rectangular pieces of metal, on which they have painted descriptions of the deceased: "Man, white pants, green shirt," says one. "Soldier," says another.

As he talks, a woman approaches. She has heard the description of one of the dead and believes she may know him. She wears a dark blue robe and steps gingerly through graves as Saad leads her by the hand. Saad removes two shovels full of dirt before realizing she is gagging, so he runs to fetch a mask.

As the body is uncovered, the smell of rotting flesh causes the woman to step backwards. Saad helps his uncle pull on the blanket in which the man was buried, revealing the head. She shakes her head and turns to leave as Saad and his uncle drop fresh shovels of dirt on the body.

"People come looking for people," he explains. "My uncle and I dig them out and show them the body. If it is the person they are looking for, they cry and take them away. If not, we cover them back over with dirt."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.