The Art of Burial During War

In Syria, another tragedy begins after death. People who went out on the streets to change the status quo are surprised at how burial methods have changed and Syrians’ rituals around death are disappearing.

Before the civil war, graveyards were often located at the edges of cities. Now, cities themselves have become graveyards for their inhabitants, especially the ones who chanted for freedom until the cities themselves were buried. Bodies are buried without prayers and without sanctity, due to the continuous bombing. Those who stop to give their final regards to the martyrs often become martyrs themselves.

Martyrs’ Cemetery
Bodies used to be buried in graves dug in soil, on top of which concrete and a marble tombstone was placed that includes part of the deceased’s identity. As a result of current events in Syria, burials are often done in shallow graves, without witnesses. Some bodies are not even buried; they are discarded on the side of the road, where they are ravaged by animals and birds, especially in enemy territory or difficult to access areas.

In Douma alone, the number of martyrs from when the revolution began in 2011 to April 30, 2016 has risen to 6,806, according to a report from a local human rights organization. The only cemetery in the city is now full. Furthermore, it is located in an open area in the mountains, which makes it an easy target for snipers, so Douma’s local council built another cemetery on the outskirts of the city in 2013. This new cemetery is called Martyrs’ Cemetery, and is reserved for the war dead.

“It’s best for the martyrs to be buried at the time of death,” says Akram Sowaidan, an artist and activist from Douma. “The grave is the safest place for his body. Morgues could be bombed at any time, and there aren’t any refrigerators in the city in which to put the dead.”

Hassan Taqieddine, another activist from Douma, agrees. “There are no natural deaths in Douma anymore. All the dead are martyrs, or people’s remains in white shrouds. Not a day passes in the city without another martyr.”

“Whenever someone dies, his body is taken to the civil defense agency,” he says. “They provide the death certificate, and wash and shroud the body. The city’s local council organizes the burial process after receiving the death certificate.”

Regarding the burial process, Taqieddine explains that “It’s more organized now, especially since we began transferring the dead to the new cemetery. Each martyr is given a number, including the grave number and row number, to identify his location.”

Activist Haitham Bakkar notes that the burial process comes with certain dangers, because vehicle departments loyal to the regime target the cemetery with mortars and rocket launchers. “But there are no charges for the burial process, such as purchasing plots or renting hearses, like there were under Assad’s regime,” he adds.

After the Massacre… Mass Graves
The scenes of death were unimaginable, and survivors must work to find solutions when there is no more room in the cemeteries.

Whole families were killed at once during the big massacres. Gravediggers could not bury more than 200 martyrs in individual plots, and were forced to bury people in mass graves.

Describing the situation in Douma, Hassan Taqieddine says that “Mass graves were used for the first time in August 2013, after a series of massacres which produced more than 120 dead per day. The sight of the dead filling the ground was terrible. One very deep grave was dug, the dead were placed there and covered, and then another layer of bodies on top of them, until there were five layers of bodies, all buried in a mass grave.”

Residential Gardens
Um Mohammad no longer grows flowers and herbs in the garden by her house in the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs. Instead, she turned it into a grave for her son Samer. “The empty space of his absence doesn’t heal,” she says. “His spirit left his body, but it’s still here inside of me.”

Um Mohammed had not intended to leave Homs, but with intensified fighting and the blockade, she could no longer stay, and was forced to flee to Mersin, Turkey. “It’s the same story for everyone in Turkey,” she says. “Assad and his forces bombed our homes, killed innocent people, prevented ambulances from arriving, and even kept the dead from having proper burials in recognized graves. My son is a martyr, not a number, he had a vibrant spirit that the war and its warlords turned into nothingness.”

Samer was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, which ripped apart his body. His mother could not wait to bury him, or provide papers proving his death. “He didn’t die in one piece, I put the pieces of his body and clothes stuck to them in the grave with my own hands. We couldn’t safely go to al-Mushtala, so my brother and I dug a grave in the ground in our garden. I’m not the only one, there are dozens of families who have buried their children in their own gardens. It wouldn’t have been our choice, but we had no alternative. My son was killed in the city when it was under siege by Assad’s forces, and we couldn’t get the bodies out because of the siege. There are dozens of people from the countryside like him.”

Um Mohammed cannot visit her son’s grave, and does not know what happened to her house and her neighborhood, which makes the situation more torturous. She breaks her isolation by going out to buy basil every day, and putting it in a garden near where she lives in Mersin, and reading the fatiha over the sea, hoping that the scent of the basil is carried to her son buried in Homs.

Deir Ezzor’s Gardens: a Grave for Local Residents
Central Park in Sheikh Yassin and al-Muwazifeen Park are two parks in the city of Deir Ezzor that are no longer places where children play or lovers stroll. They have turned into graveyards that now hold the remains of hundreds of dead who have died since 2012.

An activist who goes by the nickname ‘The Arab Badge of Honor of Deir Ezzor’ says that “During one rally, the regime’s forces opened fire on the people who had gone out to bury the dead, and two people were killed. People decided not to go to the cemeteries in the mountains, which are still there, and the surrounding area. They’re controlled by Assad, who based his artillery there. The mountains and the Deir Ezzor-Damascus road are areas with graves, because they are uninhabited, isolated, and extend into the desert south of the city.”

When most of Deir Ezzor governorate fell into the hands of the opposition, after armed struggle in the area began in June 2012, local residents were forced to bury family members killed in the bombings, battles, and by snipers in the city’s parks and other open spaces. Tarek al-Razj buried his son Ziad in al-Mashtal Park in the Hamidiyah neighborhood, for example.

“Ziad was my only son,” he says. “He was a law student who joined the revolution and participated in peaceful actions in the beginning. Then he joined the armed struggle, and became a battalion commander in Deir Ezzor. He was killed on the battlefield two years ago. I found out he had been martyred as I was en route to the Turkish border, to attend a conference about the Syrian revolution, and I couldn’t turn around. My son was dead. But there were thousands of people I could help through the conference. Ziad’s friends buried him in al-Mashtal, a big park in the Hamidiyah neighborhood, where there are more than 300 dead. Many were killed when the armed struggle began and the regime tried to storm the city and take back the land from the revolutionaries, more than 15 people per day. We started burying the dead in areas and gardens near where they were killed.”

Residents of Deir Ezzor formed a volunteer committee to oversee several gardens and prepare the graves by buying simple digging tools. “The gravediggers were volunteers,” Tarek says. “They prepared more than 15 graves per day in advance, just in case of any emergency situation, especially after one time when the martyrs’ families had to wait four hours for new graves to be dug before they could bury the bodies. There was constant bombing, and we couldn’t take the bodies out every day and wait for the graves to be ready, so we were burying them and returning to the fighting. But gatherings were dangerous, and we were often hit with missiles.”

Written on the deceased’s death certificates are the words: “We came out of our own initiative, there was nothing official about it. Government departments fell, and committees are who were tasked with primitive documentation: the deceased’s name, number, and the date and place he was killed, nothing more.”

Tombstones were put on each grave in the public parks, but the Islamic State (ISIS) removed the markers when they occupied the city, claiming that they are forbidden by Islam and violate the law of God. 

No Funerals or Mourning
“May God compensate you for your loss” is often the only sentence recited when martyrs are buried. No funeral or ’azza (mourning reception) is held to honor the memory of the deceased or console their family.

At times, an ’azza is held in the mosque during the day, after the Asr prayer. This is simply an opportunity for people to greet the mourners; people would hurry to leave the mosque because they feared that gatherings would be targeted—a common regime tactic to terrorize civilians.

“We are even deprived of our right to mourn,” says Hassan Taqieddine. “In the beginning of the revolution we would set up tents for the ’azza, which soon turned into demonstrations. After liberation [of the city from the regime], this wasn’t possible anymore, because the city was targeted and there were repeated attempts by the regime to take it back. Martyrs are buried with a few words that might console the deceased’s family, show love for them, and help ease their loss.”

Syria Has Become a Giant Graveyard
Rituals for burying the dead have changed for everyone in Syria. ISIS does not bury their victims; in areas under their control, they turn their victims to ash, or throw them alive into natural chasms of unknown depths. This happened in a place called al-Hoteh, in the al-Hamam area north of Raqqa; social media is filled with videos documenting the group’s crimes.

The sea has also become a mass grave for more than 2,000 Syrians who have drowned between 2011 and May last year while trying to cross to Europe’s shores, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

There were also secret burials under Assad’s regime; no one knows how he got rid of thousands of people in his prisons and the dead at the fronts. As Ayham Mohammed, a former detainee, writes in a novel, “Every day the regime used large trucks to transport dozens of dead detainees out of the prisons and take them to unknown locations. We imagined that the regime got rid of their bodies completely, because there was no trace left of them. Perhaps they were burned, dissolved in acid or chemical substances, or thrown in mass graves all at once.”

Hikmat al-Habbal is a Syrian journalist who currently works at the Arab Television Network. She previously worked in al-Araby al-Jadid. She has contributed to a number of Arabic and international news and media outlets, including the Dutch radio station Huna Sawtak, al-Modon, Assafir, and the Danish Politiken.

Image: Photo: A woman takes flowers to place them on the grave of her son at a cemetery, on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the rebel held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh