Besieged Syrians bury dead in makeshift catacombs

This file photo shows Syrians burying the body of a victim who reportedly died in a mortar shell attack at a layered cemetery in the rebel-held city of Douma. Abd Doumany, AFP File)
This file photo shows Syrians burying the body of a victim who reportedly died in a mortar shell attack at a layered cemetery in the rebel-held city of Douma. Abd Doumany, AFP File)

Douma - When a besieged Syrian town ran out of space and materials to bury the dead, its residents got creative. Now, Douma's dead are laid to rest in an elaborate eight-storey mud catacomb.

A massive trench runs along the edge of the rebel-held town, which lies east of Damascus and is bombarded regularly by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This hole will be transformed into a layered, beehive-like cemetery, enough to fit about 1 000 bodies in stacks of eight, officials say.

Douma's main cemetery ran out of space long ago, and bricks and cement are nearly impossible to find in the town, besieged by government forces since 2013.

Instead, workers create a muddy mixture of sand and hay, making the best use of dwindling resources available in the town.

"We have a hole that's 5m in diameter and 50cm deep, and in it we mix sand with some hay, then we add water and we stomp on the mixture," says cemetery worker Abu Abdo.

"We let it stand for 24 hours then on the following day, we pour it into moulds," Abu Abdo said.

Two men stand in a vat of the dark red material, smashing it with their feet and shovels under the August sun, then pour the mixture into moulds along with bamboo sticks.

Once they are dry, the plaques are stacked together closely to form compact tombs.

On days of heavy bombardment, workers bury up to 50 people in the makeshift cemetery, sealing every tomb with more dried plaques before stacking another layer.

Samir, an engineer who helped set up the new cemetery, said the layering technique allowed for burials of a high number of casualties much more quickly, "and because the traditional graves use up a lot of space".

"Another reason why we use this technique is to save more space for land cultivation," he adds.

"Every acre we manage to save is cultivated and made use of, which is necessary because of the suffocating siege imposed [on Douma] by Assad's regime and his acolytes."

According to the United Nations, nearly 600 000 live under siege across Syria, most surrounded by government forces, although rebels and Islamists also use the tactic.

Douma lies in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, dominated by the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group.

Syria's conflict first erupted in March 2011 and has since killed more than 290 000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

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