East Ghouta residents struggle to bury the dead, ‘resort to mass graves’

Ahmad spends his days ferrying East Ghouta’s dead from medical facilities to burial sites. Working as part of a specialized team, he and his colleagues collect bodies and black plastic bags filled with human remains from where they lie in the hallways and basements of hospitals and clinics and set off through the enclave.

“Funeral ceremonies and services are now a forgotten matter,” Ahmad tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani, requesting anonymity. “Even a proper grave is a luxury.”

Airstrikes and shelling by pro-government forces have killed more than 1,000 people in rebel-held East Ghouta since mid-February, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Violence continues in the rebel enclave despite international calls for a ceasefire.

Many East Ghouta residents are now taking shelter in basements and underground cellars, and cannot risk coming out to collect the bodies of their loved ones or practice funeral traditions. As a result, bodies may lie unrecovered for days in hospitals, under piles of rubble or in the street.

Local officials and first responders in Douma are now digging mass graves in public parks, Abu Fahd Amer, the director of the city’s civil defense told Syria Direct. “There’s nowhere else,” he says.

While Douma residents used multi-tiered graves to save space and accommodate victims of airstrikes as early as 2015, Syria Direct reported, the graves being dug today are simply large holes in the ground.

“We just hope for the bombing to stop,” Ahmad tells Syria Direct in this interview, “so we can bury our sons and daughters.”

Q: Who is responsible for transporting the bodies of those killed in East Ghouta?

Usually the family of the deceased is responsible for burying their relatives, but now the situation is catastrophic. Bodies are piling up at medical facilities as the bombings make it difficult for residents to go out and collect them. It doesn’t make sense for somebody to be killed because they are transporting and burying the dead.

A mass grave dug by the Douma Local Council on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Douma Local Council.

There is no single party that is responsible for burying the dead. Everyone is participating and helping as much as they can.

We just hope for the bombing to stop, so we can bury our sons and daughters.

Q: What are the difficulties you are facing currently with the high number of victims?

The ongoing bombings complicate burials because most residents are stuck in cellars and can’t move around. Since the family’s role is reduced, there is more pressure on the transport teams and the civil defense. Since the beginning [of the latest escalation], we have been dealing with an average of 30-100 victims per day.

Every moving object is being targeted, including our transport vehicles and ambulances. Medical centers and the civil defense [are also hit].

Rubble in the streets prevents our vehicles from passing, so we now carry the bodies by hand instead. This makes it difficult to take every person to their town’s cemetery.

Q: How are burials in East Ghouta different now?

Funeral ceremonies and services are now a forgotten matter. Even a proper grave is a luxury. Increasingly, we are resorting to mass graves. Sometimes, whole families are buried together.  

You would think we had committed a crime, the way we sneak around to bury the dead in the dark to avoid being bombed. Burying people at night is frowned upon on in Islamic belief.

At the same time, we have increased the number of graves we dig in advance. The gravediggers make sure to have 20 graves ready ahead of time.

The people of Ghouta are prevented from saying goodbye to their loved ones. The deceased arrives at the cemetery alone, or accompanied by one family member. Getting a white shroud for the deceased is just a dream. We are wrapping bodies in whatever we can get our hands on: cloth, blankets or plastic bags.

Dead bodies wrapped in UN plastic are stacking up in the basements and hallways of medical centers.

Q: Can you tell me about a specific situation that was hard for you?

There are so many stories that I will never forget. Once, a medical center was bombed while there were dead bodies piled up in it. The facility was evacuated, leaving all the bodies lying there.

The next day, we sent out pictures of the dead [online] so that their families could identify them. Some people showed up and took their relatives’ bodies, but others remained unidentified for four days, so we could not bury them.

After four days, myself and some of the guys from my team came to remove the bodies. It was a painful sight that I will never be able to forget. Among the dead were body parts in black plastic bags. I hadn’t eaten anything for two days and was already dizzy, so this sight almost made me pass out.

I started thinking: We are human beings, but do we really deserve to call ourselves that, when there is obviously no trace of humanity left? I saw human beings with no value—just chunks of meat in plastic bags with a label on it saying ‘body parts.’

When I came back home, I started digging in the garden next to my house. I dug a grave for myself. I don’t know why. If I end up as nothing but “body parts” after the next bombing, they might not even bury me in the grave I dug for myself.

The situation in Ghouta is becoming more catastrophic by the day. I think that people will soon start to bury the bodies where they died. Today, when I was going to one of the basements, I saw bodies in the street. I saw the body of an old man who had probably been there for days, without anyone removing him.  

People are overwhelmed, and everyone is busy with themselves and their own misery. It is really like judgement day.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.