Every month in Iraq hundreds of victims are struck down by sectarian violence or massive bombing campaigns, and a small band of volunteers has taken it upon themselves to give the unclaimed dead a proper burial.
"We've been doing this for 20 years, under Saddam, but the numbers have increased, as have the difficulties," Sheik Jamal al-Sudani, who leads the volunteers, tells CNN correspondent Michael Ware. "Because now it is as if the streets are flowing with blood."
Before the US invasion of Iraq deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, the volunteers buried up to 40 people every month. In the war's worst months, that figure increased 50-fold as volunteers buried an average of more than 2,000 anonymous war victims, Ware reports.
As the war stretches through its fifth year, several hundred bodies remain unclaimed every month. The unidentified bodies of men, women and children are found on Iraqi streets and sewers as well as in bombing ruins; some are "so mangled and charred, they're unidentifiable," CNN says, while others are Sunni victims whose families are too fearful from their own lives to visit Iraq's Health Ministry morgue, which is controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's hard-line Shiite followers.
The Shiite volunteers led by al-Sudani bury victims of all religions, and the bodies are photographed and catalogued in a database before they are buried in the Muslim tradition.
Volunteers take the bodies from Baghdad 150 miles away to Najaf where they are buried in hand-dug graves. Because of the high numbers, two victims often have to share a grave.
Al-Sudani laments the necessity of his work in the war zone.
""Now you see Iraqis' houses, meant to be a family's safest place, have become like graves for their families, because any minute, any second, they're ready to die by explosion, airstrikes or car bombs," he says. "And no man, and no government, American or Iraqi, can fix it because now that will take a miracle."
The following video is from CNN's Newsroom, broadcast on September 14:
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