In a Cold Room, Memories of a Life of Flowers

Abu Imad wheels a body into the freezer of the morgue at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital.
(Saad Khalaf / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

After hearing about a suicide bombing, my interpreter and I often went to Yarmouk Hospital, which has one of the largest refrigerated morgues in the city. That is where I first met Abu Imad.

He was always in the back near the freezer, wheeling the bodies into the cold room, covering them, and reviewing the paperwork brought to him by families seeking to claim their dead. He would tell us the number killed in the bombing, how many bodies were burned black, how many were women and children.

But during my 2 1/2 years in Iraq, Abu Imad also came to speak of many other things — above all, the countless ways the chaos had damaged ordinary lives. In the midst of the relentless violence, he has never lost his firm religious faith or his sympathy for each victim. He became one of a handful of people who helped me understand Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion. This article on Abu Imad is the first in a series of occasional profiles of the men and women who became my touchstones in an alien land.


When I spoke to Abu Imad on a spring day this year, I sat in his humble living quarters at the hospital: a bare room with an iron bedstead. He used to tend the garden at the hospital, but shortly before the start of the war in 2003 he was assigned to tend the dead.

I asked, “When did I see you last? It was one of the bombings?”

I don’t remember, there are so many. Sometimes this area is filled with dead bodies, the whole courtyard. Now the [freezer] is filled, there are 44 in there. Some were killed by the police, some by the ING [Iraqi national guard], the rest by the mujahedin.

I’ve been working here for four years. I feel very sad sometimes. I feel I’m losing my memory. I don’t remember well all the people who have been brought here. I feel sad, of course, for the people who are killed, and right now I’m feeling sad for those corpses in the refrigerator. If they would allow me, I would bury them according to the great rules of Islam. According to Islamic practice, you have to bury the dead immediately, they should not leave them even for one day. And some have been here for two or even three months.

This is my first job working in the morgue. I worked in the gardens before. I didn’t choose to change my position, they changed it, the hospital management. I liked the gardens and the flowers. I love plants and agriculture. Now I can no longer think of these things….

I studied until fifth grade. I did not think I would be anything because we lived in the village and were farmers. We lived near Kut. We were growing everything — cantaloupes and watermelon, barley and seeds. It was for our family. I prefer the summer plants — the tomatoes and cucumbers, the long vines. They are easier to grow, they grow so quickly. And everybody likes flowers. I love every kind of flower. You know, some kinds of roses are adapted to the heat.


He smiled shyly, leaning one elbow on a battered metal desk, the only other piece of furniture in the room, and nervously stroked his two-day stubble. He is 46, but he looks older.

I work 48-hour shifts and then go home for 48 hours. Whenever I arrive home after work, I thank God, because you never know if you will arrive anywhere because of the car bombs. The car bombs started about four to six months after the invasion — well, that’s when the bombs started targeting Iraqis. People came from Syria, then the car bombs started. Of course, the car bombs are more severe [than gunshots]. Sometimes a person’s family will not be able to recognize them.

We just cover the bodies. If I don’t have mats or covers, what can I do? But if she is a woman, I must cover her. I bring a sheet. We have two or three women a day. I have one woman who has been here for seven days. I don’t know why no one has come for her. She is 20 to 25 years old. There’s a bullet in her head. Maybe she was accused of working as an interpreter.

It hurts — we see only the bad. Really, I feel very sad. I feel I cannot stop the grief, the sadness the people are feeling.

Those clerics on both sides, they are able to stop this. Although I’m a Shia, I don’t differentiate between Shia and Sunni. Fitna [sectarian strife] is expected, and I expect a civil war. It’s mentioned in the Koran that God is afraid of parties, political parties.

We are accustomed to these tragedies and violence because we have witnessed the war with Iran [and] Kuwait. I expected that we would see only damage after the Americans came. If we live another 100 years, we will see only damage. Either way, with the Americans or without the Americans, we will see nothing but damage. Maybe, maybe with the Americans, things will be a little better.

Sometimes children come here with their families to collect the corpses. I try to keep them out of the refrigerator so they won’t see the corpses, but they look anyway, peering in the door. I am afraid they will have nightmares, but then I discovered they are even stronger than I am.

He lighted a cheap Iraqi cigarette and gestured out the open door toward the freezer. He told me about the children he had seen most recently.

I received two children this morning — 3 years old. They had been sent [to the hospital] by their mother to have an injection … they had coughs and colds. And they [the nurses] used half the dose that they use for adults, but the children died immediately. They will wait for the report from the forensic [to find out whether an overdose or a bad reaction was to blame]. Only the father came for the bodies, and he beat his head against the wall, crying for them. I wept indeed when I saw those two children today. I felt they were my own children. They were wearing pajamas and T-shirts and their hair was very long. They were like flowers.

I have seven children. My oldest daughter is married and I have one son who is 17. The others are younger. I hope they grow up and get good jobs. The 17-year-old is sitting at home with nothing to do because I’m afraid to have him go out. I don’t want him to go with young people who will join the mujahedin or go with people who are drinking.

Four mujahedin are here [in the freezer]. They had these backpack-belt things. One had an explosive belt, and people walking to Karbala [a city holy to Shiite Muslim pilgrims] recognized he was a suicide bomber and they stopped him and killed him. The others also had these suicide belts and killed themselves. Then there was the bicycle bomber in Bayaa. The one at Muthana air base, he was a Saudi.

Almost none of the suicide bombers are Iraqi. According to the police, even the bicycle bomber they found some paper on, they found paper that made it seem he was Iranian.

There was a Syrian guy we buried, he was [with the] Fedayeen [paramilitary fighters faithful to Saddam Hussein]. They were fighting in the street and were killed. We buried him in the garden. I am imagining his parents and that they don’t know where he is.

Two women in black abayas and black head scarves approached Abu Imad and proffered a piece of paper with a name carefully written on it. He looked at it and nodded, then explained to them that they must come back with a policeman to claim their relative’s body.

Sometimes families don’t come for two or three days, some don’t come for five months…. I try to talk to the families when they come to pick up their dead loved ones. I say, “You planted this and it vanished. This is God’s will.” There are so many Koranic verses that I think about.

This morning a family of a boy came. He was a young man who was sitting in his shop and he was killed in a confrontation between the police and the muj. If the muj shoot one bullet, the police return fire with 100 bullets. Even when they want cars to get out of the way, they shoot [into the air].

Once the [national guard] brought police who had been injured from Muthana, and they were shooting [to get people to move out of the way]. But the police were dead by the time they got here. I said, “Why are you shooting? They are already dead.”

The death that touched me so much was a man from Nasiriya. He stayed in the freezer for three months, and I felt he was a true believer, and I felt so sad and I sent money to his family in Nasiriya so that they could come and collect him. I sent 20,000 dinars [$14]. (Abu Imad earns 99,000 dinars a month plus whatever small tips the families of the dead give him.) Two times I had dreams about him — that I saw him. But his family never came.

If there were any opportunity to change my job I would do it. I cannot sleep at night. So many are coming, I am receiving bodies and handing over bodies all day, all night.

Now as soon as I get home, I lock the main gate of our house. And I tell my family all the bad things that are happening. I even do the shopping for my brother’s wife because I don’t want her to do it herself. My son in sixth grade is cursing the one who appointed me to this job because since I have had it, I have forbidden them from going out. I don’t want my children to grow up like me.

Is there anything that can take your mind off all the death and violence?

I like to watch the television. Nice programs. Sports. I like soccer. During the 1970s I was playing at the Al Amin club.

Security-wise it was better under Saddam. When I saw Saddam, I felt proud he was president. If Saddam had not done this Kuwait war, then America would never have been able to defeat us. We don’t need anything. We had all, why did he do that?

The thing that makes me most sad is if a Christian is killed, because they are a minority. They are peaceful people and do not hurt anybody. During Saddam’s time, no one was killed. We never received any dead people unless maybe there was a car accident. I can estimate that I’ve received 200 Christians since the collapse of the regime — most were interpreters.

I had a Christian neighbor for 13 years. I considered them like my brothers — they were educated, very nice. They learned our customs, we celebrated each other’s holy days…. They are coming here, mothers or fathers, and they are even weeping in a polite way, a calm way, not like our people who are hitting themselves [referring to the Shiite practice of beating their chests as a sign of grief].

I wrote letters to the police about the corpses in their geographic area. I said, “You have to come to bury them.” After some time the faces of the dead cannot be recognized. Sometimes I let them see the dead bodies and they say these must be Sudanese because their faces have turned black. The police do not want to come. They don’t want to do this part of their job. They think maybe they will be attacked on the road, and they don’t care that much about the dead.