Unseen Iraq

A Grim Ritual at the Baghdad Morgue

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, October 27, 2008

As the visiting families enter the guarded room, a technician sprays a flowery fragrance over them, attempting to mask the faint smell that permeates the Baghdad morgue.

Four computers and a flat-screen television, arranged in front of rows of blue plastic chairs, reflect women draped in black and men wearing polished shoes shuffling into the cramped room and squeezing into the seats.

Eyes wide, the visitors lean forward, closer to the screens. Tongues click with pity and disapproval. Images of unidentified murder victims flash by at heartbeat speed. A widow raises a pink tissue to her mouth.

The visitors fall silent.

Photos show blue-faced men who have been handcuffed, gagged and tortured. Headless corpses and limbs. Bulging eyes. Bullet holes. Charred faces, frozen in a scream.

The room opened in 2004 to help the morgue identify the bodies arriving by the hundreds from all over Iraq. July 2007 was the deadliest month, with more than 2,000 victims. At that time, a line of wives, husbands, mothers and fathers waiting for their turn in the room wound through the hallways.

Visitors have thrown up and passed out. Many shake or scream. One smashed the back window in rage. An employee says his nightmares have changed from images of the lifeless bodies, which he now knows by heart, to the heartbroken faces of the families he watches over every day.

Now, another nightmare. A woman, eyes deep in black circles, falls to the floor. She recognizes her 18-year-old son, who was engulfed in flames after a roadside bomb explosion four days ago. He had been fixing his bicycle. Police took his body to the morgue before the family arrived on the scene.

A white-haired man in the room continues to scrutinize the screens. A full year's worth of images, thousands of them, reflect in his thick glasses. Craning his neck, he squints and tilts his head and tries to recognize something familiar. A piece of clothing. A tattoo. Placing the memory of his son on every frame.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, http://visit blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company