No graves for the dead in Idlib… who takes responsibility?
Enab Baladi – Abdullah al-Khatib – Shadia al-Tataa
In Syria’s war-battered Idlib province, civilians have been struggling to afford the cost of living and death alike. After surviving the extreme hardships of displacement and showing resistance in the face of the most challenging living conditions, residents of Idlib province are experiencing greater pressure in death’s situations, most prominent of which is to find a burial place.
The reasons behind the difficulties of burial vary between the internally displaced people (IDPs) and the original residents in the province. Besides, the financial situation of the deceased’s family identifies the level of difficulty of the burial. Meanwhile, the official authorities responsible for this matter try to disavow their role and responsibility.
The majority of graves in Idlib city cost more than 50 thousand Syrian Pounds (SYP = 38 USD), which is equivalent to the value of monthly house rent in Idlib province.
This cost causes additional economic burdens on the deceased’s family members, especially for the low-income people, who represent the majority in the province.
The average amount of the total costs of the burial procedures could reach up to 100 thousand SYP (76 USD) according to the prices observed by Enab Baladi in the province.
According to the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense volunteer, some people are forced to bury the dead in remote and isolated areas, due to the demand of some graves’ owners and local councils of sums of money beyond their financial capacity.
The volunteer, who preferred not to mention his name, has had a personal experience in which he encountered difficulties in burial procedures.
He wanted to bury his baby boy who died five days after birth in al-Dana city, north of Idlib, to be surprised by the local council’s demand of 50 thousand SYP (38 USD) as burial cost, which drove him to bury his son outside the city.
Enab Baladi communicated with a group of people in Idlib and noticed that civilians were reluctant to speak about the issue of burial difficulties or the responsible authorities.
Thus, Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its Facebook page and asked its followers, “do you consider the prices of graves in Syria an obstacle to burying the dead?”
Four hundred thirty-four people participated in the poll, 72 percent answered with “yes,” and 28 percent responded with “no.”
One Facebook account user named “Ahmad Abu Ali” commented on Enab Baladi’s opinion poll by saying, “some dead people are left unburied until the grave’s cost is paid.”
He added the prices of graves are very high in the cities, sometimes as high as the price of land that is fit to build a house in other areas, as per his expression.
Another account for “Ahmad Ibrahim” also commented on the poll. He wrote, “may God help the people, endowments own millions, and the poor have to pay for burying their dead.”
Special obstacles for IDPs
“We were prevented from burying my father in the cemeteries of Sarmada city because we are not from the residents of the city, nor from its original inhabitants.”
With these words, Ahmad al-Salloum, who is originally a resident of Endan town in Aleppo Countryside and displaced to Sarmada city of northern Idlib, commenced his talk with Enab Baladi.
Al-Salloum mentioned that in the graveyard, they were confronted with some people who refused to dig a grave for his father following a decision circulated on them by the Islamic endowments ministry.
This decision stated that “dead people are not to be buried in this graveyard unless they were from the original residents of Sarmada city or the displaced people currently living in it.”
Al-Salloum finally managed to finalize the burial arrangements in Batabo village, 10 kilometers away from Sarmada city under the pretext that they were displaced in one of the camps affiliated to the city, which usually happens with other displaced persons.
Relevant authorities abdicate their responsibility… Who is responsible then?
Enab Baladi contacted the authorities that are supposed to be responsible for organizing the burial procedures. The assistant minister of religious endowments in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib, Iyad al-Masri, indicated that the cemeteries in the province were not under their supervision, noting they are not responsible for making cemetery arrangements either.
Al-Masri also denied any interference by the ministry, whether negative or positive, in the issue of graveyards, which contradicts what al-Salloum mentioned in the story of his father’s burial in Sarmada.
Al-Masri referred the graveyards’ management in each region to the authorities responsible for them; they could be a committee, a local council, dignitaries, or an official appointed by the village or the region.
Enab Baladi contacted Idlib’s local council, to inquire about the issue, for the latter to respond that it has no authority over the graveyards and that they do not fall under its duties or supervision.
On his part, al-Masri insisted that it is rare to have an endowment committee supervising a graveyard. These committees are not affiliated to the area’s Islamic endowments directorate, for they are not currently included in the organizational scheme of these directorates. These endowments committees are formed by citizens in each village or city to supervise and invest in “their endowments” facilities. They disburse funds on whatever facility affiliated to endowments, such as a mosque and its employees, according to al-Masri.
The Islamic endowments directorate does not have any financial return from these committees, nor has authority on them. These are local civil committees, not governmental, according to al-Masri.
The burial office
The executive director of the al-Nahda Islamic Association in Idlib city and the administrative officer of the burial office, Abdul Karim Khader, said to Enab Baladi that the association is responsible for the city’s burial office, which performs all burial services.
According to Khader, the office does not receive any support; therefore, it depends financially on collecting burial fees from the deceased’s family. The value of the fees is currently 25 thousand SYP (18 USD).
These fees were lower than they are now; however, they were forced to increase them this year due to the high prices of the burial shrouds, in addition to the high fees of graves’ digging process, Khader highlighted.
Khader said they take into consideration the deceased’s family’s financial situation.
Dead people whose identity is unknown, as well as the poor, are exempted from the burial fees, after verifying and evaluating the deceased’s condition, according to Khader.
As for the internally displaced people (IDPs), their situation is also taken into account, and they often are exempted from burial fees after checking their condition.
According to Khader, not all IDPs are in the same financial situation.
The majority’s situation
The material condition of the deceased’s family determines the ease and difficulty level of the burial service, which indicates that the hardships related to this subject matter are a common issue to the majority of Syrians.
According to the statistical data of the international “World By Map” website published on 21 of last February, Syria has topped the list for the world’s poorest countries, at 82.5 percent.
The website’s figures match those of the United Nations (UN), which estimated the proportion of Syrians below the poverty line at 83 percent, according to its annual report of 2019 regarding Syria’s most urgent humanitarian needs.
According to the report, 33 percent of the Syrian population suffers from severe food insecurity. An estimated 11.7 million Syrians need one of the different forms of humanitarian aid, such as food, clean water, shelter, health services, and education.
According to the UN data, the biggest number of those in need of humanitarian aid are in Aleppo, followed by Rif Dimashq province, then Idlib. Data also showed that the number of those in need of assistance in hard-to-reach places is more than one million Syrians.
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