Smugglers In Iraq Have A New Trade: Corpses Stalled for 30 years by invasion, war and rebellions, the flow of corpses from outside Iraq to the Shiite holy cemetery in Najaf has resumed. But plenty of risk remains as traffickers share the country's borders with drug smugglers and other criminals — a price they're willing to pay for the hefty compensation.
NPR logo

Smugglers In Iraq Have A New Trade: Corpses

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120087941/120098200" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Smugglers In Iraq Have A New Trade: Corpses

Smugglers In Iraq Have A New Trade: Corpses

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120087941/120098200" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Iraq now and an unusual smuggling business. We've reported on the trafficking of weapons and drugs, but there is another more surprising commodity that's long moved across the porous borders into Iraq: cadavers.

For centuries, Shiites from all over the world have sought burial in one of the world's largest cemeteries in the holy city of Najaf. The past 30 years of violence in Iraq had shut down the traffic of the dead.

But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, it is once again big business.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The cemetery is called the Valley of Peace, though for the living, it's crowded, dusty and almost always echoing with the sounds of grief.

(Soundbite of weeping)

LAWRENCE: The tombs and crypts extend for miles in every direction, large enough that different Shiite political factions in Iraq have their own sectors, spanning several city blocks.

Family members sing prayers over the dead and spill water onto the new graves.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: As long as there have been funerals here, there has been an industry to receive the dead and their families. Dakhil Shakir(ph) has spent his 80 years here in the cemetery of Najaf, he says. His earliest memories are of helping his father and grandfather with the business of funerals and burials.

Mr. DAKHIL SHAKIR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Dakhil can count back his family's five generations in the trade. He's nearly blind now. And despite his thick plastic glasses, he calls out to ask which of his sons are in the room with him. They will bury him someday, he says, and then carry on the business.

When Dakhil was a boy, he recalls desert caravans brought the dead to Najaf.

Mr. SHAKIR: (Through Translator) They used to bring the dead on mules. A mule would carry two bodies with five mules in the caravan. I have seen that with my own eyes. They would stay here for a few days, and we used to offer them a place to stay, and later, they would set off back home.

LAWRENCE: As early as the 16th century, the trafficking of Shiite corpses from as far as India was big business. The Ottoman Empire taxed and regulated the trade, as did the first governments of modern Iraq. The coffins came especially from Iran, the majority Shiite state that shares hundreds of miles of border with Iraq. Sometimes, the bodies would be buried a few years in their home country and then transferred to Najaf. In later years, some even came by airplane.

The trade ground to a halt with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and then the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. After the American invasion in 2003, a huge backlog of bodies from Shiite populations in Kuwait, Lebanon and Iran started making their way toward Najaf.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But it cost thousands of dollars in taxes and fees to transfer a body to Najaf, and only the rich can afford it, says a man who should know. This corpse smuggler only agreed to give an interview anonymously. Afraid of harsh punishments for smuggling, he wouldn't even receive journalists in his lavish home.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) Smugglers from Iran and Iraq organize the operation. They meet on dark nights by small rivers and marshes between the two countries. They bribe the guards and the bodies cross the border.

LAWRENCE: Sneaking across such a tense border in the dark puts the smugglers in some seriously bad company. Drug runners use the same routes, as do traffickers in all sorts of weapons and explosives, bound for militias or criminal gangs.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But the smuggler admits the money is good, which explains why anyone still takes the risk. The authorities are not lenient. The smuggler says they recently jailed an entire funeral party � the family, pallbearers and the driver of the hearse - on suspicion that the body was illegally trafficked from Iran.

(Soundbite of chanting)

LAWRENCE: Still, the Valley of Peace grows, regardless of how far the caskets have traveled and whether they flew here from Lebanon, or were smuggled from Iran, or were carried a short distance from Iraq's latest tragedy. Najaf's undertakers continue their trade as their great grandfathers did before them.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.