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Somali conflict keeps grave-diggers busy

Osman Aden has been burying children for the past 15 years. "Burying babies is my job. I do not think I can stop it," the 66-year-old Somali said.

world Updated: Jun 23, 2009 17:45 IST

Osman Aden has been burying children for the past 15 years. "Burying babies is my job. I do not think I can stop it," the 66-year-old Somali said.

He and other undertakers in lawless Mogadishu are relentlessly busy burying up to 30 children a day from battles in a two-and-a-half-year Islamist insurgency that is the latest twist in 18 years of conflict for the Horn of Africa nation.

Children are often casualties of the mayhem.

As well as those hit by mortars landing on civilian homes, many babies are stillborn because of lack of proper prenatal care. Others die of malnutrition and disease. In 1993, Aden's own daughter died of hunger. He received the news while on his way to bury another child. "My wife was shocked when I told her I would bury the other one first and then my own - I had to get the cash to bury mine."

Aden, who works from Mogadishu's charitable SOS hospital, charges little to bury a child because not much space is needed. "They hand over the dead baby shrouded in white cloth, and $8. I disappear with it and dig a shallow grave in a path or deserted field."

The grave-diggers are not always paid, however. Militia often make them work at gunpoint. "Digging graves has been the source of our bread for nine years," said Farah Mude, 40. "But the gunmen force us to dig graves at the price of our lives - they never pay us a cent."

Grave Theft Common

Sometimes, graves prepared in advance for the next day's burials are "stolen" overnight.

Mude once slept near a cemetery to find out who was filling his graves during the night. Waking at the sound of vehicles, he approached but was stopped by gun muzzles. "Trembling, I said 'I am a poor grave digger who just wants to be paid for his sweat. Look, I have blisters in my hands'," he said, gulping water as he recounted the tale.

He was ordered to sit by his tenth fresh grave - where the gunmen said he would be buried at the end - while they finished interring colleagues in the other nine. They did not carry out the threat but the message was clear.

"A potbellied man in the last car told me God would reward me. I was just happy to survive," he said, tying a tattered sarong tighter across his lean waist.

Some grave-diggers once tried striking in protest. A threatening phone-call - of the sort that often end in violence in Mogadishu - was enough to change their minds.

"We decided to resume our work for we did not want to die, and we really have no other form of income," Mude said.

Aware of the poverty of many Somalis, the grave-diggers are often moved to give away holes to the most desperate. One told of a 14-year-old boy who single-handedly lugged his father's body to the cemetery in a donkey-cart. As well as charity, religious conviction also compels them to bury bodies whether they receive compensation or not. "It is immoral to watch dead bodies lying in the sun," Mude said.

Since Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia in 2006, and a bloody Islamist counter-movement, the deaths have mounted. A human rights group says 18,000 civilians alone have died - and an untold number of fighters - since early 2007.

The grave-diggers sometimes give up trying to remember where bodies are, the burial areas have become so crowded.

"We will get lost if we try to spot the graves in which we buried months ago," Mude said with a sigh.

First Published: Jun 23, 2009 17:39 IST