Scenes at the Najha cemetery in Damascus’ southern countryside reveal the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Syrian capital.
Asharq Al-Awsat bore witness to the frequent burials of virus victims at the cemetery, which belies the official data about the pandemic.
Cemeteries in Damascus are already at their limit with the corpses of war victims. The government has dedicated an area within Najha for COVID-19 victims.
The cemetery is named after the nearby Najha village, some 13 kilometers south of the capital. The cemetery had been set up years before the conflict, which erupted in 2011. It is located between the towns of Babbila, Sayyidah Zaynab and Al Adleyeh.
The vast cemetery, known as the “new southern cemetery”, is divided into 13 sections, each of which is divided by a-meter-wide path.
Years before the war, very few residents of Damascus used to bury their dead there given its distance from and the fact that graves were available in the capital. As graves began to fill up with mounting war casualties and the growing cost of burials – between 7 to 10 million Syrian pounds – the majority of Damascus’ residents opted to bury their dead in Najha, where a burial costs around 80,000 pounds.
As COVID-19 began to spread and claim lives in March 2020, burials increased at the cemetery. The southern section of the area – the largest at the site - is dedicated to virus victims. Gravestones reveal that the majority of burials took place between July and August, with figures rising up to around 400.
By October, the burials dropped in that section. Moreover, a section for Christians has also been allotted in Najha after Christian cemeteries were filled up in Damascus and nearby areas. Shiites have also been buried at Najha.
Abdul Rahim Bdeir, who issues death certificates at Najha, said in October that some 40 burials used to take place there every day. He revealed that those figures had tripled in July and August.
An informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the drop in burials since October is attributed to the government’s ruling that virus victims could be buried in family graves in Damascus. Before that virus victims were only being buried in Najha.
An official statement on Monday said that 841 people have died from the coronavirus in regime-held regions since the outbreak began. However, the number of burials in Najha tell a different story and confirm that the numbers are far greater and the site is only dedicated to victims from Damascus. What about the rest of the country?
Syria has officially confirmed 13,132 infections and 6,624 recoveries. The numbers appear low compared to the massive damage incurred to the country’s health sector and displacement of millions of people due to the war. They are also starkly lesser than the figures in neighboring countries that are witnessing a surge in infections.
During the initial months of the outbreak, the World Health Organization did not comment on government figures, but has recently noted that the limited means in Syria have not revealed the extent of the pandemic, especially in Damascus.