The first body is discovered fully clothed and face down on a dirt pile.
"One here," Ali Kadhem, a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent, yells to two other volunteers in a pickup truck. They are working the perimeter of Basra University. The perimeter is a broken iron fence. The fence surrounds a university that is on fire. The fire is sending black smoke over the city. The city is under attack. The attack has sent looters into the university, who emerge onto streets filled with tank columns, infantry lines and people pushing rolling desk chairs that are piled with desks, cabinets, computer monitors, carpets and anything else that can be taken from a university on fire.
Still, things could be worse.
The body lifts easily onto a canvas stretcher. The stretcher fits nicely in the back of the pickup. A man who is tall in life will be long in death, but not so long in this case as to protrude past the end of the tailgate.
All in all, a tidy, easy recovery.
"Let's go," Kadhem says, getting in the pickup.
But then comes the shout from a volunteer farther along the perimeter: "Four! Four!" He comes running, holding up four fingers. "We found four bodies," he says.
And then come more shouts.
That brings their total to 10 -- all enemies of the U.S. and British military forces, dead perhaps for a day. An Iraqi. Several Syrians, or so say their identification papers. Perhaps a Palestinian. Perhaps a Yemeni. And unlike the first body, none tidy at all.
Wounds in chests. Wounds in hands. Wounds in shoulders. Wounds in heads. One burned, two with no heads at all, and four in the lake in front of the university, which is really a giant puddle of greenish rain water that one student describes "having no fish, only diseases." Just beyond the university on this day of Basra's liberation, the results of war will be celebrated as the day goes on, but in this corner, body by body, the war's other results will become just as apparent.
"You have a lot of technology in your killing," one volunteer, Hassan Maan Akool, will say at one point. That will be at the end of this, when Akool will be sitting in the dirt, resting for a moment, listening to the sounds of another volunteer digging a grave. In the beginning, though, he is a man hurrying toward body number two when he sees 30 British infantry soldiers flinging themselves to the ground and taking aim.
"Dead bodies!" he screams. He motions to the Red Crescent logo. The British keep aiming. He looks at their aim and calculates: just above his head, just to his side, just to his other side. He watches a looter with a coat stand weaving among them, and crouches down. There is nothing for Akool or any of the nine other volunteers to do except bring out blankets, cover what there is to be covered and load the second body into the pickup truck. This one is that of a man who lived his last moments in a hole with two unlaunched rocket-propelled grenades and died wearing bluejeans and running shoes.
The pickup is a compact, which means the back is now full. Away goes the Red Crescent to deliver the bodies to the hospital, and meanwhile the British, who are still aiming their rifles over the puddle and toward the burning university, start wondering aloud what happened here.
"This wasn't us," says one. "Not clean enough."
"Information we got is that people are starting to move against each other," says a private named Mark Johnson.
"What's happening is the Shias are starting to kick the [expletive] of the Sunnis," says another. "We were told the Shias were starting to turn against the Sunnis, and they were beheading them."
The soldiers keep talking until they get orders to move on toward the center of Basra, step by step, rifles aimed. They are replaced by more infantry, who wonder what happened, and meanwhile, the bodies in the water continue to float.
By appearances, the fighters weren't here for long. There is little trash. There are few food wrappers. There is a submerged orange kettle for heating water. There is a pair of black shoes next to a thick leather jacket. There is an empty box of a brand of cigarette called Nobel. There is a helmet that a British soldier picks up and takes with him when he moves on.
"Those two, we can't get them," Kadhem says when the volunteers return for the next load, looking out into the water. "The mud makes it too difficult."
He looks at the bodies, pondering what to do. Two more bodies of men who died in the dirt are retrieved and loaded into the ambulance the volunteers have returned in. They are back at the edge of the water, retrieving number five, when a British officer approaches them and says loudly enough to startle them, "We were told the last body is of a white man."
"No," one of the volunteers says. "No white man."
"Can I have a look in the truck, please?" the British officer says.
"They are Iraqis," says a volunteer.
"No. Syrians," says another.
"Can I have a look please?" the officer repeats.
He goes to the ambulance and has the bodies unwrapped. He looks at a dark-skinned body with a cleaved head. He looks at the second body, and the body now being brought up and loaded, and wordlessly moves on. The ambulance leaves for the hospital. Five more bodies to go, including the four floating in the water.
An hour goes by. Then another half-hour, and some British soldiers who have been told to guard the remaining bodies, to keep away the looters who have been using the edge of the lake as a shortcut, receive new orders:
Retrieve the bodies, bury them, mark their locations using satellites to pinpoint their longitude and latitude, move on. They are wondering how to do this, how to get the bodies out of the water, what they will look like, whether this can be done without damaging the bodies further, whether the sight of what they are about to see will nauseate them, when the Red Crescent volunteers return.
"Thank you," says one of the British soldiers, not to the volunteers but to himself.
The volunteers move along the shoreline. They all tie on masks except for Mohammed Taka, who removes his shoes, removes his socks, loosens his belt, removes his pants, stands for a minute on the shoreline in his T-shirt and underwear and then jumps into the water.
The first one is easy. It is right against the shoreline, floating face down. Taka reaches under and lifts the body high enough out of the water for the others to grab, and they lift him onto the dirt. This one is wearing a green scarf around his head. "I think it's Palestinian," Kadhem says, as the body is rolled onto its back, but then he sees the man's face is mostly gone and says he can't be sure.
Taka, meanwhile, has taken a length of rope tied to a length of electrical cord and is swimming out to the next body. The body is partly floating and partly suctioned against some mud, and Taka does his best to lift it, but in the end he has to shimmy the rope under the ankles, past the thighs and into the body's mid-section. He ties the rope into a square knot and gives it a shove, and the others pull it into shore.
"Surely a bomb did this. You can see his body is burned," Kadhem says.
"My house is right over there, and yesterday I heard two helicopters flying here. I am sure it is from the helicopters."
Three bodies to go now.
Taka hoists himself on shore and begins to spit. He spits again, and then again, and then goes back into the water and is encircling the next body with rope when two British helicopters come in fast overhead, bank toward the university, keep circling and come back again. In comes the body, pulled to shore. He is lifted up and the green water goes red. The helicopters come in again, just as low, and birds scatter, and the university continues to burn, and out of the dead man's pocket falls a waterlogged copy of the Koran.
"A believer," says another volunteer, Ahmed Timimi, picking it up.
"He dies. God bless him." He puts the Koran down and watches the helicopters come in on another pass and says quietly, "They are shooting."
Just as Kadhem yells the same thing.
"They are shooting!"
He yells to take cover, and the others start yelling to one another to take cover, and he yells to the helicopters, "We are not soldiers!" and then the shooting ends and the helicopters circle off and the only person left yelling is Taka, out by the next two bodies.
"Two more," Akool says, listening, trying to make out what Taka is saying.
But what Taka is saying is, "Pieces," and "It's only one person."
So it is nine bodies then. Not 10. Two left. One on land, and the other out by Taka, who can't figure out what to do with the rope this time, so instead of using it he tosses it aside and grabs a boot and pulls. This one will be buried, and the remaining one too, farther along the bank. "The Frigidaires at the hospital are full," Akool says, "and there are no relatives who will be able to claim these."
One shovel goes into dirt, another into muck. Barefoot, Taka pushes down on his shovel, tosses mud, pushes again, and again until he has fashioned the shallowest of graves. He pulls in one section of body, covers it as best he can and then swims off for the other.
That's the only sound now. No technology. Just shovels. Kadhem sits and watches the smoke.
"I graduated from this school three years ago," he says. "I spent lovely days there, wonderful days. That over there was the library. Now it is burned. Two or three months ago, I came back here, I saw my teachers, I visited the library. Three months later I am back seeing horrible things."
He gets up. The burials are done. He watches a looter walking toward him, this one a young boy holding a fluorescent light. "Savages," he says of what Basra has become.
Akool, meanwhile, uses the shovel for one more burial, a tiny piece of what once was the enemy of U.S. and British forces.
"It's a bad day, this liberation day," Kadhem says. "Too many people are dead."