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Last week, I listened to a podcast in NPR’s Rough Translation series that was on collecting the dead in Mosul, Iraq in 2018. The podcast is about Sroor Al-Hosayni, a 23 year old Iraqi woman who heads a team of volunteers who removed dead bodies from the rubble of Mosul, eight months after the city was liberated from its occupation by the Islamic State (IS/ISIS). Fascinated, I did more digging on the internet and found that Sroor’s work as a ‘body-collector’ has also been covered by the BBC and VICE news. In this post, I use these sources to recount the main parts of Sroor’s role as a ‘body collector’ and show how her story brings to light a set of rules in the international humanitarian law (IHL) framework on ‘the collection of the dead’ that rarely get any attention in academic writings.
In particular, Sroor’s story vividly illustrates the necessity of the rule in IHL that parties to an armed conflict should search for and collect the bodies of the dead ‘without distinction’ i.e. without taking account of their affiliation. The fact that Sroor gets into trouble with the authorities for collecting IS bodies evidences wider trends of counter terrorism legislation impeding humanitarian action. Sroor’s story also illustrates the danger that the unsupervised removal of bodies may not only pose a health and security risk, but may also interfere with the gathering of forensic evidence needed for the prosecution of war crimes.
Bodies in Mosul
Sroor received her nursing degree just before ISIS took over the city of Mosul in 2014. When Iraqi forces liberated the city in 2016-2017, Sroor took up her duties as a nurse, working in dangerous conditions and sleeping in her boots. Once the fighting stopped, Sroor stayed in the Mosul and watched everyday life slowly return. But nine months after the Islamic State was defeated, she was frustrated by the fact that there was still a major problem in the old city that was not being addressed by the authorities – thousands of bodies remained in the rubble, visible, horrifying, stinking and posing a significant health risk.
In response to the situation, Sroor set up a team of volunteers to start clearing the city of bodies. The group collected between 20-200 bodies a day. After seven months of this hazardous work, they had collected more than 1,200 bodies.
Many of the bodies left on the streets of Mosul were IS fighters or IS families. Some were rigged with suicide vests or carrying explosives. The authorities had a deep loathing for their former occupiers and many said their bodies should not be cleared. People regularly asked Sroor:
“Why are you moving IS bodies….. Leave them in their place. The dogs will eat them”.
Sroor replied: ‘one or two dogs can’t eat them; there are thousands of bodies’.
But Sroor’s attitude was not just based on practicality, she also wanted to rid the city of the IS presence:
“We witnessed IS harming us while they were alive, it’s ridiculous to let ISIS keep harming us when they’re dead”.
Sroor was convinced that in order for the city to move forward the bodies needed to be cleared. She noted the irony that she was using her hands to pick up the bodies of the same men who had once told her that she couldn’t go outside, unless even her hands were covered.
But at one point in the narrative of the podcast, Sroor’s story takes an even darker turn. When the Governor of Mosul learns about her initiative, he is offended that he did not know about it. He is angry, asking:
“I don’t care if the bodies of ISIS fighters are eaten by dogs. Is Sroor an IS sympathsiser?”
He orders her to be investigated by the military and forces her to stop her work in the city.
I won’t give away how the story ends (you will have to listen to find out). Instead, I will spend the rest of this blog post showing how Sroor’s story brings to light a set of rules in the IHL framework which generally get little attention: (i) the rules relating to the search for, collection of and burial of the dead; and (ii) the role of civilians in the collection of bodies. In exploring these rules, I will take account of the fact that the armed conflict between ISIS and Iraq is a non-international armed conflict.
Rules relating to the search for the dead in IHL
Interesting, although one might expect care for the dead to be one of the core provisions of IHL, common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions does not mention the obligation to collect the dead. Instead, it only mentions an obligation to collect the sick and wounded. Additional Protocol II (which does not apply in Iraq because it hasn’t ratified it it) provides a more far-reaching obligation. It sets out an obligation upon the Parties to a conflict to not only collect the sick and wounded, but also to search for the dead, prevent their bodies being despoiled, and decently dispose of them.
Based on a review of these provisions and national military codes and legislation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has found that there is a rule of customary international law that whenever circumstances permit, and particularly after an engagement, each party to the conflict must, without delay, take all possible measures to search for, collect, and evacuate the dead without adverse distinction. This rule has been found to be applicable in both international armed conflicts and non-international armed conflicts.
Sroor’s story evidences the importance of the inclusion of the term ‘without adverse distinction’ in the customary rule. It provides proof of how easily parties to an armed conflict may feel inclined to leave the bodies of the enemy unburied, out of feelings of revenge, anger, or hatred. Sickeningly, the bodies that Sroor and her team are clearing are not those anticipated by the treaty provisions – newly dead and intermingled with the sick and wounded – instead they are bodies that have been ignored and left out in the open for over eight months. They are unrecognisable, in a state of advanced decay– their clothes reduced to rags.
While an obligation to take efforts to identify, collect, and bury the dead is not explicitly articulated in human rights treaties, such an obligation has been argued to be contained within the positive procedural obligations of the right to life. It is easy to see how the non-collection of bodies may also amount to a violation of several other human rights i.e the obligation to respect private and family life, freedom of religion, the right to health and the prohibition of the right to families not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.
One might also argue that deliberately leaving bodies out to decay amounts to the war crime of ‘outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment’ (see commentary to common Article 3, para 668). It is notable International Criminal Court’s Elements of Crimes makes clear that the definition of this crime can extend to crimes against dead bodies.
Civilian population involvement in collection of the dead
The situation in Mosul also brings to light a reality that goes back into history, namely that civilian populations often help in efforts to collect the sick, wounded, and dead in times of war. Henri Dunant’s famous story of the Battle of Solferino recounts in detail how the civilian population played an important role in collecting the wounded and dead. The very first Geneva Convention of 1864 contained a provision that was explicitly intended to protect civilians helping with the wounded. It states: ‘inhabitants of the country who bring help to the wounded shall be respected and shall remain free. Generals of the belligerent Powers shall make it their duty to notify the inhabitants of the appeal made to their humanity and of the neutrality which humane conduct will confer’.
A similar provision can be found in Article 5 of Geneva Convention 1906 which states that authorities can appeal to the ‘charitable zeal’ of inhabitants to receive and care for the sick and wounded of armies, and will offer such individuals protection and immunities. Notably Article 5 adds the limitation that such individuals can only operate under the supervision of military authorities. Both the 1929 Geneva Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention I (which were drafted for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick on the field) repeat this restriction. Article 17 of Additional Protocol I expanded the activities for which local civilian assistance can be requested so that the text included searching for the dead and reporting their location. However, it refrains from going as far as to say that the civilian population can be asked to ‘collect’ the dead. Article 17 repeats the notion that anyone who responds to the call of the authorities will receive protection.
The idea that civilians helping with these efforts should receive protection is connected with the idea that the collection of the sick, wounded, and dead is an act of humanity that should never be punished. The fact that the Governor of Mosul did not recognise this and saw it to be an act of complicity with the ISIS is indicative of wider and concerning trends of overly wide counter terrorism legislation impeding humanitarian action.
Obligations relating to the investigation, prosecution and punishment of crimes
Yet the story of Sroor and the Mosul body collectors is also illustrative of another good reason for such initiatives to be supervised. It shows that having a medical training and good-intentions is not enough for this task, which in addition to being about clearing up and providing dignity to the dead –may also be about securing forensic evidence. Indeed, it shows that there is another important set of obligations at play regarding the collection of the dead, namely those relating to the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of crimes. These obligations are found in international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
The relevance of these obligations is illustrated by the moment that Sroor and her team come across a room in a destroyed house that is waist deep with bodies; men, women, and children. It is estimated that there are some 100 bodies. Confronted by this horrific sight, the team simply set about clearing them, without even considering that this might be a crime scene with valuable evidence to be preserved and recorded. An investigator from Human Rights Watch visited the site soon afterwards and indicated that she was troubled by the removal of the bodies, as she was not aware of the site having been subject to any forensic investigation.
I have tried to find out what happened to Sroor Al-Hosayni and what she is doing now in Mosul but I have not been successful. Her story is remarkable not only because it shows the power of one woman to fight the authorities, but also because of the attitude that she demonstrates towards the Islamic State. Like the authorities she is angry with the city’s former occupiers but unlike the authorities she refuses to leave the IS bodies to rot in the streets, an act of revenge which she sees to be self-defeating. Instead she chooses – in her words – to ‘take revenge’ on IS through the humanitarian work of clearing their bodies.