Iraq Wedding Fire Kills More than 100, Relatives Identify Bodies

People gather at the site of a fatal fire, in the district of Hamdaniyah, Nineveh province, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP)
People gather at the site of a fatal fire, in the district of Hamdaniyah, Nineveh province, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP)
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Iraq Wedding Fire Kills More than 100, Relatives Identify Bodies

People gather at the site of a fatal fire, in the district of Hamdaniyah, Nineveh province, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP)
People gather at the site of a fatal fire, in the district of Hamdaniyah, Nineveh province, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP)

A fire ripped through a packed wedding hall in northern Iraq late on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya.

Fire fighters searched the charred remains of the building in Qaraqosh through Wednesday morning and bereaved relatives gathered outside a morgue in the nearby city of Mosul, wailing and rocking in distress.

"This was not a wedding. This was hell," said Mariam Khedr, crying and hitting herself as she waited for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren, the youngest aged just eight months.

Survivors said hundreds of people were at the wedding celebration, which followed an earlier church service, and the fire began about an hour into the event when flares ignited a ceiling decoration as the bride and groom danced.

Nineveh province Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaf told Reuters 113 people had been confirmed dead. The head of the province's Red Crescent branch said the death toll was not final but that it "exceeds hundreds injured and dozens killed".

A video of the event, posted on social media but not yet verified by Reuters, appeared to show the flares suddenly catching a glittering ceiling decoration that burst into flames, as sounds of excitement turned rapidly to panic.

Another video that Reuters has not yet verified showed a couple dancing in wedding clothes as burning material begins to drop to the floor.

Investigation ordered

Iraq's Interior Ministry said it had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the wedding hall, state media reported, and President Abdul Latif Rashid called for an investigation.

Three people who attended the wedding said the hall appeared poorly equipped for the disaster with no visible fire extinguishers and few exits. Fire fighters arrived 30 minutes after the blaze began, they said.

Deadly fires in Iraq that were blamed on negligence, lax regulations and corruption hit two hospitals treating COVID patients in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriya in 2021, killing at least 174 people in all.

"We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn't got stuck," said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.

Preliminary information indicated that the building was made of highly flammable construction materials, contributing to its rapid collapse, state media said.

"I lost my daughter, her husband and their 3-year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning," a woman said outside the morgue, where bodies lay outside in bags as vehicles came to collect those that had been identified.

A man called Youssef stood nearby with burns covering his hands and face. He said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. He had grabbed his 3-year-old grandson and managed to get out.

But his wife, Bashra Mansour, in her 50’s, did not make it. She fell in the chaos and died.

Qaraqosh in mourning

People in black streamed towards the cemetery in Qaraqosh on Wednesday afternoon as a line of pickup trucks drove past, carrying the dead for burial.

Hundreds gathered, many sobbing, as coffins were carried at shoulder height, some shrouded in white, one with a floral cloth, before being laid on the ground where distraught mourners tightly embraced as caskets were lowered into their graves.

Most residents of Qaraqosh, which is mostly Christian but also home to some members of Iraq's Yazidi minority, fled the town when ISIS seized it in 2014. But they returned after the group was ousted in 2017.

"Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness. Now we are preparing their burial," said deacon Hani al-Kasmousa at Mar Youhanna church, where the wedding service took place before the evening celebrations.

When Pope Francis visited Qaraqosh in 2021, residents crowded the streets in bright clothes, with olive branches borne aloft and Assyrian hymns blared from loudspeakers to celebrate the inhabitants' return after years of militant occupation.

Only about 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq after most of the 1.5 million who lived in the country fled during the chaos following the US-led invasion in 2003, an exodus aggravated by ISIS’ seizure of Ninevah plains towns in 2014.



One Year Later, Migrants Who Cheated Death Off Greece Seek Justice

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
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One Year Later, Migrants Who Cheated Death Off Greece Seek Justice

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo

Desperate hands clutched at Ali Elwan's arms, legs and neck, and screams misted his ears, as he spat out saltwater and fought for three hours to keep afloat in the night, dozens of miles from land.
Although a poor swimmer, he lived — one of just 104 survivors from the wreck of a dilapidated old metal fishing boat smuggling up to 750 migrants from North Africa to Europe.
“I was so, so lucky,” the 30-year-old Egyptian told The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, where he works odd jobs while he waits to hear the outcome of his asylum application. “I have two babies. Maybe I stay(ed) in this life for them.”
Thousands have died in Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks in recent years as migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seek a better life in the affluent European Union.
But the sinking of the Adriana a year ago Friday in international waters 75 kilometers (45 miles) off Pylos in southern Greece was one of the worst. Only 82 bodies were recovered, so that hundreds of families still lack even the grim certitude that their relatives are dead.
Elwan, a cook whose wife and children are in Cairo, says he still gets phone calls from Egypt from mothers, brothers and wives of the missing.
“We (left) home to get the best life for the family and until now (their families) know nothing about them,” he said.
And after a year there are only hazy answers as to why so many lives were lost, what caused the shipwreck and who can be held answerable.
Migrant charities and human rights groups have strongly criticized Greece's handling of the sinking and its aftermath.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Thursday “a credible process for accountability” was needed.
“It is unconscionable that one year since this horrific tragedy, the investigation into the potential liability of (Greece’s) Coast Guard has barely progressed,” HRW official Judith Sunderland said in the groups' joint statement.
The Greek coast guard, migration ministry and other officials did not respond to AP requests for comment ahead of the anniversary.
Authorities had a coast guard boat on the scene and merchant ships in the vicinity during the trawler's last hours. They blame smugglers who crammed hundreds of people into an unseaworthy vessel — most in an airless hold designed to store a catch of fish — for a nightmare voyage from Libya to Italy.
They also say the Adriana capsized when its passengers — some of whom wanted to press on for Italy after five dreadful days at sea, others to seek safety in Greece — suddenly surged to one side, causing it to lurch and turn turtle. And they insist that offers to take the migrants off the ship were rebuffed by people set on reaching Italy.
Elwan — who says he was on deck with a clear view of what happened — and other survivors say the lurching followed a botched coast guard attempt to tow the trawler. He claimed the coast guard hurriedly cut the towline when it became evident the Adriana would sink and drag their boat down with it.
“If you find the ship (at the bottom of the sea), you will find this rope” still attached to it, he said.
But the logistics make such a feat nigh-on impossible, Greek authorities say, as the ship rests some 5 kilometers (more than 3 miles) down, at one of the Mediterranean's deepest points.
The coast guard has denied any towing attempt, and allegations that its vessel tried to shift the trawler into neighboring Italy's area of responsibility.
A naval court began investigating last June, but has released no information on its progress or findings.
Separately, in November Greece's state ombudsman started an independent probe into authorities' handling of the tragedy, bemoaning the coast guard's "express denial” to initiate a disciplinary investigation.
Last month, a Greek court dropped charges against nine Egyptians accused of crewing the Adriana and causing the shipwreck. Without examining evidence for or against them, it determined that Greece lacked jurisdiction as the wreck occurred in international waters.
Effie Doussi, one of the Egyptians' defense lawyers, argued that the ruling was “politically convenient” for Greek authorities.
“It saved the Greek state from being exposed over how the coast guard acted, given their responsibility for rescue,” she said.
Doussi said a full hearing would have included testimony from survivors and other witnesses, and let defense lawyers seek additional evidence from the coast guard, such as potential mobile phone data.
Zeeshan Sarwar, a 28-year-old Pakistani survivor, said he's still waiting for justice, “but apparently there is nothing.”
“I may be looking fine right now, but I am broken from the inside. We are not getting justice,” he told the AP. “We are not receiving any information about the people of coast guard ... that the court has found them guilty or not.”
Elwan, the Egyptian, said he can still only sleep for three or four hours a night.
“I remember every second that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t forget anything because (I) lost friends in this ship.”
The journey that preceded the wreck was also horrendous.
Survivors said Pakistanis were confined in the hold and beaten by the crew if they tried to stir. But Arabic-speaking Egyptians and Syrians enjoyed the relative luxury of the deck. For many, that spelled the difference between life and death when the ship capsized.
“Our condition was very bad on the first day because it was the first time in our life that we were traveling on the sea,” Sarwar said.
“If a person ... tried to vomit, then they used to say that you have to do it right here on your lap, you can’t get (outside),” he said. “On the fifth day, people were fainting because of hunger and thirst. One man died.”
Elwan said he left for Europe secretly, telling his wife he would be away for months, working at an Egyptian Red Sea resort.
He's upset that he's still to be granted asylum, unlike many Syrian survivors who, he said, have moved on to western Europe.
“Only people from Egypt can't get papers,” he said. “I've been working for 10 months to send money for my family ... If someone says come and move rubbish, I will go and move this rubbish, no problem for me.”
If he gets residence papers, Elwan wants to work in Greece and bring his family over.
Otherwise, “I will go to Italy, maybe Germany. I don't know.”