Under the marble arches of a church in Qaraqosh, several dozen faithful attended the ceremony. Thursday in pain and anger a mass in memory of the victims of the fire who mourned a wedding in northern Iraq.
Arriving in the province of Nineveh, where Qaraqosh is located, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Chia al-Soudani went in the morning to the bedside of the wounded being treated in two hospitals in the region.
The fire which ravaged a village hall in Qaraqosh – also known as Hamdaniyah – on Tuesday evening left around a hundred dead and 150 injured, according to a still provisional report. Some 900 guests were in this building which did not meet security standards, according to the Interior Ministry.
Thursday morning in Qaraqosh, in the Syriac Catholic church of al- Tahira, women with drawn features are embraced on a bench. Not far away, a woman hugs a man who cannot hold back his tears.
Survivors are present at the mass, including a man with his arm bandaged for burns, according to a journalist from AFP.
Portraits of the victims, including children, are lined up at the foot of the stairs leading to the choir.
– “Pain in our hearts” –
After mass, Najiba Youhana, 55, recites in a sad voice the names of missing loved ones.
People attend a mass celebrated for the victims of a fire in a wedding hall, on September 28, 2023 in a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq © AFP – Zaid AL-OBEIDI
“I don't know what can I say, it's a pain in our hearts, a tragedy that will never be forgotten,” she says. “There is anger and indescribable sadness.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered at the Qaraqosh cemetery to bury loved ones. Other funerals are planned in the coming days.
The testimonies collected by AFP agree that the fire spread at an astonishing speed. On social networks, videos taken up by Iraqi media show pyrotechnic devices projecting high showers of sparks, setting fire to the decorations decorating the ceiling.
In addition to an insufficient number of emergency exits, Civil Defense denounced, in the construction of the building, the use of prefabricated panels that were “highly flammable and contravened safety standards”.
A party hall ravaged by a fire during a wedding, September 27, 2023 in Qaraqoch, Iraq © AFP – Zaid AL-OBEIDI
These materials immediately caught fire on contact with Indoor “fireworks”, pyrotechnic devices projecting high showers of sparks, widely used to brighten up weddings.
Security services arrested 14 people, “including 10 employees (of the venue), the owner and three people involved in activating the fireworks,” according to the Interior Ministry.
– “Human error” –
Ranked by the jihadists of the Islamic State group in 2014, Qaraqosh has since been slowly rebuilt and 26,000 Christians have returned to live there, half of its original population.
But in a country ravaged by decades of conflicts and wars, there are also daily tragedies.
Iraq is regularly the scene of fires or fatal domestic accidents, very often at due to lack of compliance with safety standards, particularly in the construction and transport sectors.
In 2021, a few months apart, two fires caused several dozen deaths in hospitals, also illustrating the mismanagement of public services after decades of mismanagement and corruption.
At the Al-Tahira church, Riad Bahnam, 53, came to pray in memory of his sister-in-law and his six-year-old grandniece.
“It was joy that transformed into sadness and anger”, he says, criticizing a “human error” and “shortcomings” at the origin of the tragedy.
For him, any civil servant “having committed negligence in giving the required authorizations to the owner is also responsible: he is supposed to demand compliance with safety standards”, he criticizes.
He compares the tragedy to “the tragedy of the boat Mosul”: in March 2019 a ferry overturned on the Tigris River, in the large metropolis located a few dozen kilometers from Qaraqosh.
At least 100 people, almost all women and children, had perished. The boat, overloaded at the time of the tragedy, was sailing even though the authorities had warned of the danger due to the high water level.
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