MOSUL, Iraq — The morgue in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was where atrocity met bureaucracy.
Here was the processing point for the victims of the machine of butchery that the Islamic State group created during nearly three years of rule in large parts of Iraq and Syria. Every day, the doctors and staff witnessed the worst of what the militants were capable of inflicting on human beings, constantly fearing they could be next.
Yet the morgue men of Mosul found ways large and small to defy their captors by honoring the dead as best they could.
Some days, up to 100 bodies would stream into the facility. They included the mangled casualties of bombardment or fighting between the militants and the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Others had suffered the grotesque punishments that IS dealt out to those it considered criminals.
The records kept by the morgue contain monstrous details.
One Excel sheet documents more than 1,200 people who were shot in the head, a likely sign of IS “executions,” between June 2014 and January 2017, a period covering most of IS rule. That’s an average of 11 a week. Among them were 16 boys and six girls under the age of 14. It notes 12 women “stoned to death,” the IS punishment for those suspected of illicit sex. It also lists 95 people who were beheaded and 50 men and boys who died from a “fall from a height,” likely hurled from rooftops, the sentence for those suspected of being gay.
In general, it was forbidden to return these victims’ bodies to their families. Instead, they disappeared into mass graves. The records are not complete, and thousands are known to have been thrown directly into mass graves without ever coming to the morgue.
Here is a look at some of the men of Mosul’s morgue and how they tried to keep hold of their humanity amid relentless brutality.
RESCUED FROM MASS GRAVES
Raid Jassim, the chief medical assistant at the morgue, arranged the meeting in a parking garage at night. “You brought her?” the businessman asked. “Yes,” Jassim replied. The man broke into tears and hugged him in gratitude. Jassim then opened his car’s trunk so they could pull out the body of the man’s wife.
Jassim and other staffers tried to do this whenever they could, sneaking bodies out of the morgue to return them to their families and keep them out of mass graves. They had to do it secretly, cutting off electricity to turn off the morgue security cameras. In this case, the woman had been killed on accusations of spying.
The 48-year-old Jassim recounted how IS fighters slaughtered two captives right in front of the morgue staff, decapitating one and shooting the others. Jassim himself was given 30 lashes for smoking, a crime under IS, and he was severely beaten after he refused to forge a death certificate for a fighter.
In 2005, Jassim had been overjoyed to get a government posting at the morgue. The pay was several times more than what he’d earn in a government hospital. He was a graduate of a medical institute, a two-year diploma after high school, and had gone on to serve as an army nurse.
But now he has been left scarred, unable to sleep without taking several valium every night.
“Pressure, pressure, pressure,” he said. “I always expected them to come at any moment and kill or behead us.”
LESS THAN FOUR MINUTES
A 35-year-old medical assistant, Sameh al-Azzawi tried to help families by sewing the heads back on the bodies of those IS decapitated. This was strictly forbidden by the militants, so al-Azzawi did it in secret at night, working quickly. He got to the point he could stitch a head back on in four minutes.
But he stopped when one day an IS fighter discovered a body with the head sewn back on and threatened to decapitate whoever did it.
Al-Azzawi, a father of three, graduated from a medical institute in Mosul in 2008 and worked in a hospital for several years before being assigned to the morgue in 2012.
The time under the Islamic State group has left him a broken man.
He found one of his cousins among the bodies arriving at the morgue — IS had shot him in the head for allegedly feeding information to the Iraqi government. Al-Azzawi later tried to escape with smugglers, hiding in a truck under boxes of potato chips, but he was caught and had to sign a statement acknowledging that he would be punished by death if he tried to flee again.
After that, the terror wrecked him: “Anything they ask for I do without complaint.”
BURYING THE TRAUMA
The senior examiner at the morgue, Modhar al-Omari could only watch helplessly as the victims of the Islamic State group flowed in and the militants imposed their terror even on the morgue’s staff.
“Our profession as doctors is all about humanity” — respecting life, he said. “They were doing the exact opposite.”
The 43-year-old veteran doctor and surgeon was well known among his staff for his calm. He was used to wearing suits, but under IS he was forced to wear the “Islamic” garb of shortened pants and a long beard that the group said was the style of the Prophet Muhammad.
His job was to sign off on the cause of death for victims’ brutalized corpses. As a forensics doctor, he also had to investigate the “crimes” of the living — like signing medical examinations of whether women accused of adultery were virgins or not.
He got some revenge by passing on information. He secretly told the government in Baghdad when several senior commanders were killed in airstrikes.
But he says he has never cried for the dead.
“You can’t talk or explain. You just keep it inside,” he says. “If I cried, I’d cry every day for every single body.”