Mosul, Iraq — The garbage men laid out and unzipped each body bag so their supervisor could photograph the remains inside, just in case someone came forward to ask about a missing person.
But it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to identify their loved ones from those cellphone snapshots, given how decomposed the corpses were. And no DNA was collected for future identification before the bodies were buried in a pit on the edge of a city dump in the outskirts of Mosul.
In the end, it was another pile of unidentified bodies in a mass grave, like so many others in a country plagued by violence. This time, most of the dead were believed to be Islamic State fighters killed in the final stages of the battle for Mosul. City workers said that since August of last year, they had retrieved and buried an estimated 950 such bodies.
The municipality has struggled to keep pace with the return of residents after the expulsion of the Islamic State nearly a year ago, and Mosul does not have the personnel to focus on clearing bodies and unexploded ordnance.
So the city enlisted garbage men to help with these grim tasks, which they were never trained for.
On a recent visit to Mosul, I approached the city’s main municipal dump on the eastern outskirts of the city. It brought me back to a year earlier when I had accompanied Iraqi special forces entering the city under siege. The smoke and strong smell of burning trash were reminiscent of the battle for Mosul.
But this was peacetime and in many ways things have returned to normal in Mosul, remarkably so given the level of destruction and killing in recent years. Part of that normalcy is the collection of refuse, the main job of the garbage collectors. A growing trash problem is one of the municipal government’s biggest challenges.
As residents surge back into a city that less than a year ago was embroiled in intense warfare, garbage is piling up and informal dumps have sprung up throughout the city.
Adding to the problem is a lack of dump trucks. Islamic State fighters tried to defend their position in Mosul by using state-owned dump trucks to block roads and even turned some of them into truck bombs. During months of intense battle to wrest the city back after three years of militant rule, the trucks were either destroyed by airstrikes or blown up by the radical fighters themselves.
At the main city dump, some of the city’ poorest residents sifted through debris looking for anything salvageable. The foul smell emanating from the sea of trash was inescapable and the thick, chemical-infused smoke wafting through the air burned the nose.
Many of the scavengers were young children. Armed with hooked metal rods, they descended on every new dumpster that arrived with a mixture of excitement and desperation. They seemed to encourage each other with the idea that there could be treasure amid the trash.
There were also many women scavenging in these harsh conditions. Though wary of a foreign journalist, the eldest of the group explained that many of them were widows and this was their only way to survive and provide for their children. Under the Islamic State, she said, women were forbidden from doing this activity and only since the group’s defeat had such large numbers of women joined in.
The bodies the trash collectors retrieve also end up at a municipal dump, but they are buried in unmarked mass pits around the edges. If they do find a body that they think belongs to a civilian rather than an Islamic State fighter, they will hand it over to the morgue.
I followed a team of state workers through the most devastated part of the Old City, where the militants made their last stand, and watched as they searched the rubble for any signs of bodies. Often local residents guided them toward the stench, complaining that they hadn’t been able to return home because of the smell.
The Maydan district where the militants were cornered and ultimately killed is now marked by a sign that says in Arabic: “Here is the graveyard of ISIS.”
After more than six months of decomposition, it was very hard to tell much about the remains, particularly without any sort of forensic training or equipment. With each body, however, the workers would find a telltale sign that they said indicated it was that of an Islamic State member.
Either it was fatigue-style clothing, a long beard or relatively new sneakers, which they said only fighters had at that point in the city. In many cases, it seemed impossible to tell.
In a crumbling house set on the river bank above the emerald-colored Tigris, a hard-to-reach room was filled with more than 30 bodies piled on top of each other. Either they had been executed while lying down or killed elsewhere and thrown inside. But there was no sign of anyone who was qualified or interested in trying to ascertain what had happened to these people.
The garbage men took a few bodies out of the room but then decided they needed to call in a digger to clear a more direct route to the house. They would not finish the job that day and we moved on. Some of the men said there were many more such sites buried beneath the rubble.
Once the men had filled their flatbed truck with nearly 20 bodies, it was time to take them for burial. Less than a 20-minute drive away at the al-Sahaji dump on the western side of Mosul, an excavator was already at work digging the mass grave where the bodies would soon be laid to rest.
One of the more intact cadavers appeared to be holding his arm up to his face as if trying to shield himself.
There was muted laughter as the men joked that it looked like this Islamic State fighter had been scared in death.