Iraq ten years on: Baghdad’s ‘Cinema of Death’

The co-ordinated bombings that killed at least 56 people in Baghdad today were a reminder that Iraq is still a very deadly place. While violent deaths are down from their 3,000-a-month peak at the height of the Sunni-Shia civil war in 2006, on average around 350 people still die every month. Mass, co-ordinated terrorism strikes of the kind that happened today are still common here, they just no longer make international headlines in the way that they do when they happen in other countries. Meanwhile, scores of kidnappings and assassinations every month often don’t even make it into official police statistics.

Residents gather at the site of a car bomb attack in the AL-Mashtal district in Baghdad Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

Many victims’ relatives, moreover, do not even get the paltry consolation of a body and a funeral. Every week, numerous unidentified – and sometimes unidentifiable – bodies arrive at the Baghdad city morgue. Some have been reduced to an anonymous mess by a bombing, others are victims of abductions whose bodies are often discarded in rubbish dumps or street corners, usually minus ID cards. At the height of the sectarian violence, some Iraqis began tattooing identifying details on their bodies in case either of the scenarios above befell them. But most people don’t go that far, so if they disappear, it leaves their loved ones facing an agonising search that may never yield answers.

For many, that hunt ends at the Baghdad morgue, where, during the civil war, the level of business was so great that bodies could not be kept in storage for more than a few days. Instead, they would be taken off for burial, and a photo taken of the victim’s face – or what was left of it. And so began the so-called “Cinema of Death”.

In a small sideroom to the morgue, these photos would be shown, one by one, on a grisly projector show, which relatives of missing people would sit watch in the hope of identifying their loved ones. I went there myself once in 2010, and it remains one of the few genuinely harrowing experiences of my time in Iraq, an occasion when all the bloodshed over the years – most of which never took place before my eyes – became horrifyingly real.

With every click of the projector, a new photo would come up. Some corpses showed signs of torture, such as drill holes in the skull, garrote marks, or cigarette burns on the cheek. Other corpses were bloated, rotting or discoloured after lying undiscovered for days or months. In the event that one was identified, staff were on hand in case a mother or wife in the rows of seats in front of the projector collapsed with grief.

During my brief visit, none of the widows present identified any of the photos, although that brought its own problems. Without a body, they could not get a death certificate from the Iraqi government. And without a death certificate, Iraq’s inflexible government bureaucracy would not pay them benefits as widows.

One woman, who sobbed in her chair as I spoke to her, had been looking for her husband ever since his abduction in 2006, and had spent the last four years touring hospitals, morgues and police stations trying to find what had happened to him. I fear she may still be looking to this day.

Colin Freeman, who was based in Baghdad as a freelance journalist between 2003 and 2005, returned to the Iraqi capital last month to report on how life has changed. This blog is one of a series. His book about living in Iraq is The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and other half-truths from Baghdad.

Read more by Colin Freeman on Telegraph Blogs

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