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World

Iraqi Civil Defense Workers Recover The Dead From Mosul Battles

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's begin this next story with an advisory because some people may find the next five minutes or so to be disturbing. It's the story of the aftermath of combat, the aftermath of the long, long battle to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS. Making a devastated city livable again requires recovering the dead. Civil defense workers have been doing that despite going years without pay. NPR's Jane Arraf spent the day with them.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The rush starts early in the morning every day since Mosul was declared liberated. People are lined up at the civil defense forces base asking Colonel Rabia Ibrahim to recover the bodies of their relatives.

RABIA IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "We have more than 200 houses waiting, all of them women and children under the rubble, and we can't get to them yet," he tells them.

MOHAMMAD SHABBAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Another worker, Mohammad Shabban, takes names and phone numbers. How many bodies, he asks each person. He tells them he'll get back to them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: There's so many people packed into here, a worker tells them to wait outside.

I'm looking down the street that leads to this parking lot of the civil defense base, and there's a stream of people. Yellow taxis pull up, and families get out. And there are lots of people walking. They've all come here to claim the bodies of their relatives.

BASHAR ABDUL JABAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Bashar Abdul Jabar came the day before and spent the night here sleeping on the floor. He makes a living selling vegetables from a cart. He's been here three times. He couldn't bear to go home and tell his wife he'd failed again to recover the body of their teenage son Ahmed.

JABAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "I come, and I go. And I come, and I go," he says. "I have no house, no money."

JABAR: (Crying, foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says he's not crying for his son. He's crying over the disaster that has befallen everyone. At first, the civil defense forces were rescuing civilians still alive after being trapped when buildings collapsed around them. Now it's just bodies. They've retrieved more than 1,000 bodies in just the west side of the city so far.

The colonel decides which bodies they'll try to retrieve this day, and they set off, the civil defense workers in a red truck with relatives sitting in the back to show the way. There's a flatbed truck behind to carry the corpses. One of the civilians leads them to a basement where he and his brother buried their nephew and his children who were killed in a mortar attack. The workers get out shovels, and they start to dig.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

SHABBAN: They're not wearing any protection over their faces, and the stench is incredible. And then there's the dust and the heat. They thought there would be four bodies here, but they've now found the fifth wrapped in one of those fuzzy blankets with red and yellow flowers on it.

It's the body of a neighbor. Abdul Manam Abbas, one of the civil defense workers, says they find a lot of children.

ABDUL MANAM ABBAS: Many, many women and children, the victim - women and children.

ARRAF: It's dangerous work. Almost everyone in the team has scars from shrapnel. There are explosives in some of these houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR STRIKES)

ARRAF: And here's the thing, these civil defense workers from Mosul haven't been paid in three years. The Iraqi government cut off their salaries when ISIS was in control of the city, and it hasn't restored them yet. But they still come to work.

ABBAS: (Through interpreter) I can stay at home and not come to work, and no one will punish me. But I come because we're doing a humanitarian duty.

ARRAF: Abbas is 38. He was among those trained by U.S. forces more than a decade ago. The first couple of times he went out, the smell made him sick. But after 12 years, it doesn't bother him. He says he's seen so much grief, that doesn't affect him either. We get to the house of Abdul Jabar, the vegetable seller who had been back and forth to try to get his son's body. Civil defense workers tell him not to look, and they bring a crowbar. But he sees enough to realize that his son didn't die right away, that he couldn't free himself because his feet were trapped under the rubble.

JABAR: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He sits down and cries. "My son died alone," he says. I ask civil defense worker Abbas and some of the others how seeing all this every day affects them. Most of them tell me the same thing, our hearts are dead - but not really dead because in spite of everything, they still show up every day for work. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "LETTER 2. FORBIDDEN ATTRACTION - TIAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.