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Grieving Syrians forced to dig graves at night in besieged Ghouta

As regime airstrikes pummel Eastern Ghouta, petrified residents rush to bury their loved ones in the dark for fear of joining their lost relatives.

In a cemetery in Harasta, a city in the besieged Syrian district of Eastern Ghouta, aerial attacks have raised the dead. Despite the acute danger and gruesome scenes, treks to graveyards are unavoidable. With people dying almost daily, a driver is tasked with dropping off corpses at the cemetery, where an undertaker and relatives wait to bury the bodies.

“Many burials take place after sundown since it’s harder for regime planes and their allies to spot small gatherings,” Hosam al-Beiruty, the head of the local council of Harasta, told Al-Monitor. “It wasn't always this way. Harasta used to have big funerals before the war. Many people would attend and a sheikh would say a prayer. Now a body is buried in 10 or 15 minutes by three or four relatives.”

During the latest onslaught on Eastern Ghouta between Feb. 6 and Feb. 8, at least 210 civilians were killed by regime planes and their allies, according to UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. The graveyard in Harasta wasn’t spared.

The fighting has reportedly calmed since the Syrian regime downed an Israeli plane on Feb. 10. But civilians warn that no place is safe for long in the besieged district, not even graveyards. Along with Harasta, media activists and civilians told Al-Monitor that two other cemeteries have been damaged in the fighting in recent weeks, and seven have been hit since January 2017.

Burying the dead is thus a perilous endeavor. Islamic customs require funerals to take place within 24 hours of the time of death, but civilians say that long power outages are the bigger issue. The lack of electricity makes it impossible to store the dead in coolers until the violence calms, forcing families to bury their loved ones before they begin to rot. But those charged with the task fear dying next to the bodies they came to bury.

Ahmad al-Taqljee, a 16-year-old boy from the Kafar Baytna neighborhood, said that his brother Hassan was among scores of civilians killed when a regime bomb hit a fruit market on Feb. 6. Activists say that at least 80 people were killed that day.

The shelling was still raging when Taqljee and his two cousins took Hassan’s body to the graveyard that evening. By then, the undertaker was overwhelmed but still helped Taqljee and his cousins bury Hassan as fast as they could.

“A regime plane flew over us while we were digging the grave. We were so afraid that the shelling was going to kill us. I was crying the entire time,” Taqljee told Al-Monitor.

Ehsan al-Jenery, from the town al-Malihah, says that he was also frightened to bury his father, who died Jan. 20 due to malnutrition — a condition spurred by the chronic food shortages because of the siege.

According to his will, Jenery’s father wanted to be buried in al-Malihah cemetery, where many of his relatives were laid to rest. But because the regime forces were too close to the area, Jenery buried him in the nearby town of Jisreen.

“Only my two brothers and I went to bury our father and pay our respects. We thought we would have been a target if anyone else came with us,” Jenery told Al-Monitor. “We could see regime planes flying over the town from Western Ghouta. We were grieving, but we were also scared that a bomb would take us to God to meet our father.”

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, even the dead have suffered the consequences of war. Inhabitants of al-Ajami, on the outskirts of Harasta, say that they discovered the desecration of several Christian tombs after Ahrar al-Sham — an ultraconservative opposition group — recaptured the area and several others from regime forces on Dec. 30, 2017.

Harasta's Beiruty said he entered the graveyard soon after Ahrar al-Sham retook it from the regime and saw the wooden coffins dug up and corpses exposed. He also accused regime forces of committing the act since they had been the only ones in the area, though no one in Harasta witnessed what happened.

He said, “I have never seen anything more shocking in my life. Some people think that the graves were dug up by regime forces to make battle trenches. Others think that robbers tried to open the tombs to see if there was anything worth stealing. Whatever the reason, there is no justification for dishonoring the dead.”

The cemetery in the town of Jobr is also ruined. Residents say that the crumbled graveyard has been hit hard throughout the war, stopping people from burying the dead there since June 2017. The only person that still enters these grounds is a man who goes by the name of Abu Fahd, a 70-year-old undertaker who says that indiscriminate attacks leave corpses partially exposed. For their honor, he reburies the remains once it is safe to do so.

Over the course of his life, Abu Fahd has buried 21 relatives in Jobr's cemetery. Though some died of old age, many others were killed by shelling and bombing. He said the last one he buried was his 2-year-old grandson in June, who was killed after forces loyal to the regime dropped a bomb on his house.

“I have worked in this cemetery for 50 years. My father was the undertaker in Jobr when I was a small boy,” he told Al-Monitor, standing outside the cemetery. “I will never abandon this place. All my family members who have died are buried here.”

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