NAJAF, Iraq - Iraqi paramedic Sarmad Ibrahim cut his teeth treating fellow Shi'ite Muslim militiamen in the war against Islamic State. Now, he buries COVID-19 victims - an exhausting task where he must also get to grips with both Muslim and Christian burial rites.
"So far, we're coping," Ibrahim said as fellow volunteers from the Imam Ali Combat Brigade prepared to handle a coffin just sent from Baghdad. "But if we start receiving more bodies we might not be able to bury according to religious rules."
Established after an edict from Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it is dwarfed by the nearby Wadi al-Salam cemetery, the largest in the world, but is expanding.
More than 200 people have died since the outbreak began in Iraq in February and the volunteers say they receive two to four corpses each day. The country's confirmed coronavirus infections have doubled from around 3,000 to more than 6,000 in the space of just over two weeks, according to health ministry figures.
Ibrahim and his comrades joined the brigade part of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary umbrella grouping, to fight Islamic State several years ago.
While this enemy is very different, the work is both physically and emotionally draining.
Bodies often arrive at night. The volunteers, in full protective suits, wash and wrap the corpses in black burial shrouds before putting them back in the coffins. They carry the coffins to the graves under the headlights of their vehicles.
STIGMA AND UNFAMILIAR RITES
The team has struggled to expand beyond its dozen or so members. Some medics say suspected exposure to the virus has alienated them from their families and neighbours and for these volunteers it is no different, even though there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread via corpses.
"If we face a shortage of men, I'll have to ask friends or other fighters to come and help us. I'm afraid that if someone catches the virus, relatives will blame me for it," said a 46-year-old militiamen, who gave his name as Abu Sajad.
He had not told his family he is working in the cemetery and said the friends who know that he is are reluctant to meet him.
Some tribes and local religious leaders have refused to bury victims of the virus in local cemeteries, one of the reasons this new graveyard was set up.
"In the beginning bodies were brought back to the morgue, where they stayed for up to 15 days," said Abdul Hassan Kadhim, who leads the burial volunteer team. "They ended up being buried without proper religious rites."
At this cemetery the team must respect those rites. With relatives allowed to watch from a distance, a student from a local seminary leads prayers around each Muslim grave. Two Christians were recently buried here as well.
"We know they'd prefer to be buried in their own graveyards. But because of the pandemic, they now rest here," Abu Sajad said kneeling in front of one of the Christian graves.
"We asked for advice on Christian burials, to be able to carry them out according to their own rituals and traditions. I didn't know about them before. But we did everything the way our Christian brothers told us."
(Reporting by Alaa Marjani; writing by Charlotte Bruneau and Ahmed Rasheed; editing by John Davison and Philippa Fletcher) ((John.Davison@thomsonreuters.com;))