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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 01:15 GMT 02:15 UK
Iraqi river carries grotesque cargo
Five hundred mutilated bodies dumped into the River Tigris have been washed up in two years in the town of Suweira, 100km (62 miles) south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The BBC's Mona Mahmoud and Sebastian Usher have spoken to the community through an Iraqi journalist to find out how they cope.

River Tigris in Baghdad
Hundreds of bodies have drifted down the Tigris from Baghdad to Suweira

It is a normal day on the murky waters of the Tigris for two fishermen near Suweira.

The catch they have made is nothing new to them, but it unveils its grim secrets slowly.

"Wait a minute," the first fisherman shouts out to his partner in their little fishing boat after he finds a body in the river.

"His body is so decomposed... His belly is cut open - he can't be lifted out."

"Does he have a head?" he asks.

"No, it's been cut off," the other fisherman replies as he looks down into the water.

'Every day'

They power up the engine to help them drag the decaying corpse into the boat.

When the body is safely aboard, the fishermen describe how huge nets, intended to catch floating plants and rubbish, catch the bodies as they drift downstream from Baghdad.

Early in the morning, we go and get the body, prepare his shroud - a plastic bag
Local fisherman

"This is happening every day - two to three bodies a day," the first fisherman says.

"We find them in the net, which is there to catch floating reeds."

The other fisherman says the bodies cannot be picked up after sunset.

"We leave the body until morning and then recover it, because if it is late in the evening no-one can come with us," he says.

"Early in the morning, we go and get the body, prepare his shroud - a plastic bag - until someone comes from Suweira to take the body to hospital."

Unremitting flow

At a nearby hospital in Kut, a bustling city of about 300,000 people, a forensic scientist quizzes a policeman about the latest body he has brought in.

"Has the body been shot?" he asks. "Does it have any bullet wounds?"

Map of Iraq

"Yes, his dishdasha [traditional robe] is full of holes," the policeman replies.

"Is the body handcuffed and blindfolded?" the scientist asks.

"No, it isn't," the policeman answers. "But his face is marked and we found a bullet under the body."

The head of the hospital's forensics department gives a sense of how unremitting the flow of bodies has become.

"Up to now, we have received about 500 bodies," he says.

"They range from 20 to 45-year-olds - most are male. We have received about 10 women aged between 20 and 35."

"Most of them have been shot or tortured. They are in an advanced state of decomposition, so you can't stand to be close to them for long."

It takes them at least three days to float downstream from where they have been dumped in the river.

Worst fears confirmed

Two workers in the morgue note the clothes on each corpse meticulously.

"We take identifiable marks for the body, because he doesn't have a name or anything else," one explains. "We rely on these marks."

We've been looking for [my son] and three other men who were with him...I came to the hospital in Kut and we found him with the others - I saw his picture
Mahaweel resident

"Sometimes the body has a tattoo and from the tattoo we can identify him," says another.

Families in Baghdad now know that when a relative goes missing, this is where he might be found.

Opposite the forensic department, relatives call home to check descriptions of clothes and distinguishing features - anything to give them a chance of identifying a missing family member.

"My brother is missing," one man says. "He was on his way to Baghdad, but was murdered in Yusufiya with a group of men who were with him."

"We identified the body of one man who was with him," he adds.

"He'd been handcuffed and blindfolded and shot three times in the head. There were clear signs of torture on his body."

Some families have more luck, at least in the sense of having their worst fears confirmed.

"We've been looking for [my son] and three other men who were with him," an older man from Mahaweel says.

"We met some people and they told us to go to Suweira to look for him. I came here and they told us, 'Go to Kut, you will find your son there'.

"I came to the hospital in Kut and we found him with the others... I saw his picture."

Special graveyard

Many of the bodies, however, remain unidentified.

The morgue is too small to store them all and, in the heat, burial cannot be put off for long.

A body is pulled out of the River Euphrates near Baghdad
Many victims of Iraq's sectarian violence are dumped in rivers

At the graveyard, a new section has been set aside for the bodies found drifting down the river from Baghdad.

The people of Kut and Suweira never expected such a grim cargo to come down their way from Baghdad.

Officials and volunteers deal with the hundreds of bodies as best they can, but there is little money and few resources.

Abdul Hussein, who runs the graveyard, says they do what they can.

"The state pays the wages of the workers. We also help any family member who is looking for a body. If they don't have money, we help them," he explains.

"For burial, we dust the body," he adds. "We could wash the body with water but it is often too decomposed."

"The hair and nails will fall off if we wash them and that is haram [forbidden]."

"In the past, we used to strip the body of its clothes. Then we were ordered to leave their clothes on, so they could still be identified."

Iraq 'in pain'

At last, the unknown corpses are buried, but only lightly so that they can be exhumed for identification.

The gravediggers recite final details of the victim. Unusually, two of those being buried are women.

I'm sad because Iraq is always in pain - I feel terribly sad for the Iraqi people
Abdul Hussein
Graveyard supervisor

"6563. 26 May. Female. Write down a description of her clothes," Abdul Hussein says.

"What is she wearing? An embroidered gown... Move her head from this side. Take a picture of her."

Then it is the other woman's turn:

"2656. This is her number. Put it close to her head," he says. "OK, now throw the dust on her."

The final ceremony is brief. The gravediggers recite a prayer.

Abdul Hussein goes through this every day.

"At the end of every burial, I feel so sad for the families of the unidentified bodies," he says.

"I'm sad because Iraq is always in pain - I feel terribly sad for the Iraqi people."

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