A production line of death at the mass graveyard

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The Independent Online

The graveyard stretches as far as the eye can see. Diggers and bulldozers prepare trenches while gangs of masked workmen cover those that have already been packed with the dead. In the distance, more machines are preparing long trenches. A dust storm drenches the scene in a surreal yellowish light.

The graveyard stretches as far as the eye can see. Diggers and bulldozers prepare trenches while gangs of masked workmen cover those that have already been packed with the dead. In the distance, more machines are preparing long trenches. A dust storm drenches the scene in a surreal yellowish light.

The entrance is jammed with traffic as the Iranians bury their dead from the Bam earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people early on Friday.

A grisly production line of death enters the graveyard as vehicles of all descriptions vie to get through the gates and down the dusty track. Bodies wrapped in blankets are piled on the backs of pick-up trucks and jammed in the back seats and boots of private cars.

As soon as graves are prepared, they are filled. A digger is still scooping out one end of a trench while bodies are lain in the other. The smell of decomposing flesh is intense. An adolescent boy drives from the grave on a moped, his face broken with grief.

Volunteers, mainly from the Iranian Red Crescent Society and the Basij Islamic militia, offload bodies as soon as they arrive and carry them to the side of a mass grave. About 20 blanketed figures wait to be processed with purpling bare feet protruding from the ends.

Red Crescent mullahs quickly perform burial rites over the dead. There is no water, so the ritual cleaning of faces and the backs of hands must be made with dust. The bodies are stiff and a mullah has difficulty unbending a hand. Prayers are said over the bodies as they are wrapped in white shrouds.

"I came here this morning to bury the dead," says a turbaned mullah wearing surgical face mask and gloves. "I have no idea how many have come through."

A line of neat white figures lying side by side is growing faster than the grave beside it can be filled.

Nearby, workers are preparing to cover another grave. Nearly 40 corpses are jammed into this one, which is more than 10 metres long. A truck passes, with blankets covering a mass of bodies. Only one tiny hand protrudes.

A distraught man tries to climb into the grave but is held back by his relatives. Overcome by the horror of this tragedy, he is convulsed with sobs. Finally, he is brought to one end of the grave where workers allow him to scatter some earth over the bodies with a spade, before he collapses and is carried away.

Further away are the graves that were filled yesterday morning. Crude markers have been placed on one, showing that the Baqeri and Sharifi families were buried here. Mad with grief, a woman rubs dust into her face and hair, half-heartedly restrained by crying relatives.

But hundreds of unidentified victims of the disaster go unmourned. With entire families wiped out and whole streets destroyed, often nobody is left to identify the dead. Police forensic officers in green overalls work their way along a line of 50 bodies. One says that as many as 30 per cent of the dead have not been identified.

One by one, the blankets are drawn back and the faces of the dead are photographed. As the cameraman prepares his flash, a policeman holds a numbered piece of cardboard next to the cadaver's head. It is a middle-aged man in pyjamas with dark bruises along his upper arms and torso. Tomorrow, the photographs will be put on a police computer.

Back down the path, two mullahs in Red Crescent bibs stand away from the graves. They are praying, tears pouring down their cheeks. A woman is sitting limply on a blanket, her head flopping from one side to another as her two companions try to lift her.

This cemetery contains only the dead of Bam. Victims from the surrounding area are taken away and buried there with their families. On our way into the city, a car pulled off down a dirt track to a village. On the back seat was the body of a child resting in his mother's arms, feet sticking from the window.

Until yesterday, the largest single disaster evident in the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery was the war with Iraq. A large area is covered with small white boxes, each marking a martyr's death. Today, that tragedy is forgotten. The city graveyard is expanding every hour into the desert.

Iranians are flooding from across the country to help with the aid effort in Bam. Although specialised foreign teams have arrived from all over the world, they can provide only a drop in the ocean of the help Bam needs. The road to the city is tight with cars, driving bumper to bumper at breakneck speeds. The side of the road is already littered with crashes: aid trucks, cars and pick-up trucks twisted and crushed. The registration plates of those entering the city tell their own story, showing markings from Yazd, Tehran, Bandar Abbas, Shiraz and Isfahan.

"I am one of a group of 400 people organised by the mosque," says Khodadad, a bearded and turbaned 22-year-old. "Many people have come from my city of Zahedan, but I am just very pleased to be able to come and help."

In Tehran, people have flocked to donation centres to give what they can, including blood. The response to appeals has been so overwhelming that people are being turned back from blood banks. Spontaneous vigils have started in some main squares of the city.

A new orphanage has been created for Bam's children. "We are sending them all away to Kerman," says the manager. "People keep bringing material aid, but we really need to give these kids psychological aid."

One man at the centre stands in front of his truck. He has come from Qom, he tells me. There were four of them in the truck, one of many bringing food, blankets and clothes from the famous seminary city in the north. They drove all night and arrived this morning. He says they will stay for as long as there is work to do.

Most of the arrivals bring gifts to the centres set up by the Red Crescent or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Then they go to help dig through the debris of crushed houses.

At one site, people stand aside to allow a team of Germans through with sniffer dogs. So far, the foreign teams have not been able to save anybody, but a British team member tells me of two unconfirmed reports of survivors being found under the rubble. Even if the stories are true, it will still be difficult to drag them out.

"I have many family members here," says a turbaned sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet, leaning out of his truck. "All of them are under the rubble. Only one brother survived."

But for all the horror, there is already a sense that people are coming out of shock and starting to plan ahead. Zahra, a middle-aged woman in a chador, is sitting with three family members in the back of a pick-up truck. "All we can do now is find a tent, pitch it up and wait for things to improve."