Mosul morgue workers struggle to cope with 'river of blood'

MOSUL, Iraq, July 21 (Reuters) - The fridges are nearly full at the morgue in Mosul where the casualties of war with Islamic State are stored.

So many bodies are brought in that the morgue workers struggle to identify and bury the dead fast enough to make space for the next batch that arrives with grim regularity, as the city's residents clear up after nine months of urban warfare.

The battle for Mosul is over, but the task of sorting out the dead is only just beginning.

"A lot of blood has been shed," said an employee at the morgue, who asked not to be named. "Iraq used to have two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Now we have a third: the river of blood."

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A timeline of the battle for Mosul
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A timeline of the battle for Mosul
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter looks over as he stands on the top of a humvee in front of an Islamic State militants' position outside the town of Naweran near Mosul, Iraq October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Newly displaced people wait to receive food supplies at a processing center for displaced people In Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises at Islamic State militants' positions in the town of Naweran, near Mosul, Iraq, October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier stands next to a detained man accused of being an Islamic State fighter at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi father (L) mourns the death of his son, who was killed during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People run in panic after a coalition airstrike hit Islamic State fighters positions in Mosul, Iraq, November 17, 2016. Goran Tomasevic: 'I had been to the Tahrir district of eastern Mosul several times while covering the campaign by Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes to retake the city from Islamic State militants. Covering battles is tough and in this case, it was difficult to get to the frontline at times, but on this day we managed. When we arrived it seemed calm and quiet. Soon after a car blew up in a suicide bombing in an Islamic State counter-attack to the forces' push into Mosul. There were casualties, children screaming, and several nearby houses were destroyed. There were also clashes. I have covered many conflicts in my career, but what has struck me in Mosul is the number of car bombings. The fighting comes in waves and when things eventually quietened down, I saw a group of civilians making the most of a break in gunfire to come out onto the streets. They were both young and elderly, and felt safe enough to leave their homes with few belongings, walking carefully but calmly towards where I was standing capturing the scenes around me. Suddenly an air strike targeted Islamic State positions a few hundred metres away behind them. It was close and total panic ensued. People were screaming, ducking and running away as the plumes of smoke rose nearby. They quickly ran for whatever shelter they could find. I heard the plane just before the airstrike, and from experience knew I had little time. These things happen fast and you have to act quickly. First you have to make sure you are safe, then stay focused so you can get the shot. You get your lens ready and stay calm. It was one airstrike and residents waited it out before finding other shelter. I eventually moved to another location to continue covering the fighting.' REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "2016 PIX" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of Iraqi rapid response forces holds a flower during battle with Islamic State militants in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced people, who fled Islamic State militants, cross the bridge in Al-Muthanna neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq, January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
American army personnel gather at the University of Mosul during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi boy holds a white flag as his family flees during the battle between Iraqi rapid response forces and Islamic State militants at Tigris river frontline between east and west of Mosul , Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi Special Forces soldier moves through a hole as he searches for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq February 27, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People who are trying to escape from Mosul walk in front of an Islamic State fighter, Iraq February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A woman gestures as she approaches Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 1, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi special forces soldier fires at a drone operated by Islamic State militants Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 4, 2017. Reuters Photographer Goran Tomasevic: "Both screaming in terror, a father and the young daughter he cradled in his arm fled through the rubble-strewn streets of Wadi Hajar, transformed in a flash into a battleground between Islamic State fighters and Iraqi special forces. They and their neighbours - some wearing rubber sandals, some barefoot - were running from an IS counter-attack in this part of Mosul, dodging gunfire as the militants closed in. When they reached the special forces lines, males were ordered to lift their shirts to prove they weren't suicide bombers. Some had to take off their clothes or show their belts, though not those carrying children. The father was so beside himself, so panicked. It was obvious because he had a short shirt on and was carrying a child that he wasn?t Islamic State. I believe they will both be taken to a refugee camp." REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic SEARCH "TOMASEVIC FATHER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi woman reacts as she waits in a street for a truck to carry her to a safe place, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi girl cries before entering Hamam al-Alil camp, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, south of Mosul, Iraq March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi rapid response members fire a missile against Islamic State militants during a battle with the militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes near Mosul's Al-Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, as Iraqi forces battle to drive out Islamic state militants from the western part of Mosul, Iraq, March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People walk in front of the remains of the University of Mosul, which was burned and destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Ameen Mukdad, a violinist from Mosul who lived under ISIS's rule for two and a half years where they destroyed his musical instruments, performs at Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul, Iraq, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed
A destroyed room inside an abandoned building is seen in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares SEARCH "EMPTY CASARES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Cartoon characters defaced by Islamic State militants are seen at a children's hospital, in eastern Mosul, Iraq April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A members of the Iraqi Federal Police throws a hand grenade during clashes with the Islamic State fighters in western Mosul, Iraq, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced Iraqis from Mosul wait to cross the Tigris by boat after the bridge has been temporarily closed, at the village of Thibaniya, south of Mosul, Iraq May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces look at the positions of Islamic State militants during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Debris fly as smoke rises after an artillery attack on the Islamic State militants' positions by the Iraqi Army in the Shifa neighbourhood during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of the Iraqi army drop leaflets over the old city of Mosul, Iraq, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier from the 9th Armoured Division gives drops of water to a dehydrated child rescued earlier by soldiers at the frontline, during the ongoing fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants near the Old City in western Mosul, Iraq, June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro SEARCH "DE CASTRO DEHYDRATED" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A destroyed al-Hadba minaret at Grand al-Nuri Mosque (L) is pictured through a hole at the Iraqi-held position at the Old City in Mosul, Iraq June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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The full scale of the losses may never be known. Morgue and rescue workers said they were now receiving bodies at a rate of at least 30 to 40 per day - most of them killed by air strikes that helped dislodge the militants.

Inside one of the fridges, black body bags stacked to the side contain the remains of civilians who were methodically gunned down by Islamic State snipers, behind a soft-drinks factory as they fled towards Iraqi security forces in June.

A woman at the morgue had just identified one of them as her mother: "I've been searching for her body for a month and a half," she said. What she found hardly resembled her mother, but she recognized the clothing and contents of her pocket.

All that remained of one man was a shriveled foot, brought to the morgue wrapped in a dust-clogged jacket. Relatives identified it from the sock the man wore when an air strike crushed him to death beneath his own home, a morgue worker said.

"The numbers are higher than we expected," said Dr Modhar al-Omary, the head of the morgue in east Mosul. "We keep hoping the flow will decrease, but so far it hasn't."

RETRIEVING THE DEAD

Leading the effort to recover corpses decaying beneath the rubble is the Civil Defence Force.

"I can't even smell it anymore," said Lieutenant Colonel Rabia at the force's headquarters in west Mosul.

Retrieving the dead is itself a potentially lethal endeavor: Last week, a member of the Civil Defence Force was killed when a bomb buried under the ruins of a home exploded as he tried to free bodies trapped there.

The worker who drove the bulldozer, clearing the way for bodies to be taken out, was also wounded and has since quit, severely affecting the team's capabilities.

Adding to their woes, they have not been paid since the government suspended salaries to its employees in areas under Islamic State control nearly three years ago.

"If we don't do it, who will?" said Civil Defence worker Ahmed Abdulqader, asked why he continued working without pay. "We are serving our country."

The Civil Defence Force only recovers bodies to which relatives of the deceased lead them. The rest are left in the rubble for now. Otherwise, there would be too many corpses to fit in the fridges at the morgue, and it would be harder for relatives to identify them.

When an unidentified body is brought to the morgue, it is kept in the fridge for some time. If nobody claims it, the remains are photographed and buried in a numbered plot by the Mosul municipality so they can be located if someone comes searching in future.

IDENTITY

Beyond identifying and burying the hundreds killed during the battle, an even bigger challenge looms.

The status of all the people who died during three years of Islamic State rule, whether from natural or unnatural causes, is ambiguous.

Many of them were buried informally, or received death certificates issued by Islamic State, but the Iraqi government does not recognize those.

Without an Iraqi death certificate, relatives of the deceased cannot claim compensation from the government, but to obtain one, the body must be dug up so the identity can be verified.

Yasin Abdullah's brother died in February when a car bomb parked outside the entrance to his home in west Mosul blew up. He was buried in the yard of a nearby school because it was too dangerous to make the trip to a graveyard.

The school has re-opened now, but Abdullah has yet to receive permission from the court to dig up his brother's grave.

"How will I secure my brother's rights and his children's?" he asked.

The authorities want to check they were not Islamic State members, for whom Iraqi authorities do not issue death certificates.

As for their bodies, they are left to rot in the sun, said Civil Defence worker Ayham Abdelhamad: "There are hungry animals around - they can eat them." (Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alison Williams)

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