Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Business of Tragedy

By Michael Hastings

April 20, 2006 - The outlook for Iraq's economy is grim. Oil production has fallen to prewar levels. With foreign investors scared off by political instability and a climate of violence that produces about 70 attacks a day, private investment has stagnated. Local businesses keep shorter hours, while wealthy businessmen are regularly targeted for kidnapping. Electricity levels have dropped to the same as they were three years ago, frustrating ordinary Iraqis and hampering new development projects. The main reason for these troubles: insurgents and unchecked militias have done a good job of driving Iraq's economy to a near halt.

Well, almost. One sector of the economy has been quietly expanding since the March 2003 invasion—the so-called death industry. Cemeteries are growing from Najaf to Fallujah, while projects to expand morgues are underway in Baghdad. An entire class of low-wage workers now relies solely on the bloody violence to make their living—from men who shuttle bodies to cemeteries to caterers who provide coffee and tea for funerals. There's more money in the business than ever before, too, as costs for funerals have multiplied. The prices for coffins, plots, tombstones and other funeral services have skyrocketed.

In the past year of the war, there were 36 violent deaths a day, according to Iraq Body Count, an independent organization that tracks media reports of civilian casualties. In the first year there was an average of 20 per day. "The number of bodies that come to our house has increased a hundred fold after the fall of Baghdad," says Jamal Abdul Hassan, whose family has run a funeral preparation shop in Baghdad for three generations. "Before that, maybe out of each 1,000 cases, one would be a murdered person. Now the opposite applies."

Hassan saw a recent spike in business following the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, which set off a wave of killings that has now claimed over 1,500 lives. In the single worst attack of the year, suicide bombers dressed in women’s robes struck a Shiite mosque in Baghdad on April 7, killing 79 people and wounding more than 160. "I am too exhausted to talk," the 48-year-old with a well-trimmed gray beard told a NEWSWEEK reporter recently. "I am exhausted, emotionally and psychologically."

It was a car bombing of a Shiite mosque in Baghdad that occurred a week after Samarra that pushed Hassan to the edge: 25 of the dead ended up at his shop for the Islamic cleansing ritual. Hassan and two partners worked through the night to prepare what was left of the bodies, simply washing them with water, bandaging the wounds, and stuffing nostrils, ears and mouths with cotton. "Many had either missing organs or were greatly deformed, not to mention the bodies that weren't found," he said bitterly. "I wonder what those families had done to deserve such a destiny?"

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this morbid business trend is at Baghdad's central morgue. According to the head of the morgue's statistics department, Dr. Qais Hassan, the number of dead passing through the morgue has been on the rise since 2002. There were about 2,000 bodies in 2002, 8,000 in 2004 and 10,015 in 2005. The majority of those cases, he says, are related to the war—assassinations, victims of shootouts and bombings. The morgue is so full at times, he says, they have to cool the bodies in shifts. "Taking out the bodies that are frozen, bringing the fresh ones instead, and so on," he explains.

Hassan is currently waiting for funds to expand the number of refrigeration rooms from 13 to 33. (Each room is supposed to hold 10 bodies; they cram 20-25 in them now.) At Yarmouk Hospital, one of Baghdad's largest, workers recently completed two new refrigeration rooms and construction is under way for a new morgue, a first for a city hospital.

Burial ground is also in demand. The country's largest Shiite cemetery in Najaf—where tradition dictates Shiite dead should come to be buried close to the Imman Ali Shrine across the street—has seen unprecedented growth. Before the war, says Abu Hadi, a man who drives bodies from Baghdad to Najaf, the layout consisted of four blocks of land, each holding 4,000-5,000 graves. Now the cemetery spreads over seven blocks.

There's fierce competition for the best plots too: it's become normal for families to try to purchase one or two plots for the future when they attend funerals there. Prices have increased over the last three years from a few dollars to over $200 for a plot, with prime real estate closer to the road going for over $1,000. According to Chadir Sabbar Awad, an official who works at the cemetery, there are about 50 registered new undertakers and an average of 120 funerals a day. In the heavily Sunni town of Fallujah, the main cemetery has taken over a soccer field, and city officials are considering seizing more property for its further expansion. At a cemetery in the Adamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, officially filled, families are paying up to $300 to get grave diggers to bury their loved ones illegally.

To be sure, there was plenty of death in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The eight-year war with Iran left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. Saddam's own regime left mass graves across the country, from the heavily Shiite south to the estimated 50,000 Kurds he'll soon stand trial for killing in 1988. But making a buck off military deaths and civilian massacres wasn't really an option.

Today, all that has changed. Ali Hussein, a carpenter who makes the wooden coffins used to carry bodies to the grave, now sells his boxes for three times the price than during Saddam's time. He attributes the rise in prices to better quality wood and the "higher mortality rate." The business also now supports his son, who could no longer make a living selling plastic sheets wholesale. "I make an average of two coffins a day with a monthly total of 60," he says. "They run out. That's why you only see four or five in my shop now.”

A gravestone maker, Abu Mohammed, says he sells 10 stones a week, up from the three before the occupation. Abu Hadi used to drive live passengers in his orange Caprice from Baghdad to Kirkuk, but has stopped because the road is unsafe. He now transports the dead, and he's been able to offset his losses by the increased trips to Najaf. "It's the only secure and profitable work now," he says.

Given the gruesome nature of the death industry, the current boom makes men like Jamal Abdul Hassan uneasy. He once had to wash "only a head for preparation," he recalled. "Unfortunately, some people now turned this into a profitable job." Hassan says he only charges people the fees for the materials involved, and that people then add whatever "tips" they want for the work involved. But no matter what the compensation, it's hardly a job anyone feels good about.

With Mohammed Heydar Sadeq and Hassan Al-Jarrah in Najaf, and Ayad Obeidi in Baghdad


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