A large portrait of Jesus Christ dominates the crowd, making way for a procession of coffins after a fire ravaged an Iraqi Christian wedding.
In the cemetery of the northern city of Qaraqosh, mourners surrounded clergy from various churches, chanting prayers in Syriac and giving sermons in Arabic.
Some attendees displayed portraits of their deceased loved ones.
Just a day prior, the individuals in those portraits had gathered in an upscale banquet hall for a wedding.
But while the bride and groom celebrated, a blaze ignited in the reception area, claiming the lives of at least 100 individuals and injuring 150 more.
“I don’t know what to say; there is pain in our hearts, a tragedy that will never be forgotten,” said Najiba Yuhana, 55, who lost multiple relatives. “There is anger and sadness that is indescribable and without compare.”
Authorities have blamed indoor fireworks that set alight ceiling decorations for the fire that quickly engulfed the reception centre, constructed from highly combustible building materials that belched toxic smoke.
By all accounts, the fire spread rapidly.
Videos on social media depicted indoor fireworks reaching so high they ignited ceiling decorations.
The disaster hit the town of Qaraqosh, a centre of Iraq’s small Christian community in the Nineveh Plains near Mosul, which is still recovering from the terrors of Islamic State group jihadist rule from 2014 to 2017.
The town, also known as Hamdaniyah, is now home to 26,000 Christians — half of its original population.
On Wednesday, approximately 20 coffins, draped in satin or adorned with flower bouquets, were carried through the crowd by men.
Following them were tearful women, all clad in black, leaning on supporters as they struggled to remain upright.
Samira, a 53-year-old housewife, arrived to lay to rest 15 of her family members, “from the father to the youngest child, aged four,” she said somberly.
“We still have to bury a man and his two twin daughters. They’re dead but we haven’t recovered the bodies,” she added. Other burials are scheduled for the upcoming days.
She paused, taking a deep breath, and said, “That’s enough, I can’t talk anymore.” But she went on.
“There’s no sentiment possible; we’re all dead,” Samira said. “There isn’t a single person who hasn’t lost a family member or a friend.”
Mourners at the cemetery recited “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” before transitioning to liturgical hymns.
When journalists tried to speak with attendees, many declined to comment.
Beside the family vaults lining the cemetery’s paths, men and women openly sobbed, expressing their grief with anguished cries.
One woman kneeled, giving a tender kiss to a portrait of a younger female.
14 suspects arrested
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who has declared three days of national mourning, travelled to the province on Thursday to visit “the injured and the families of the victims”, his office said.
Anger has flared over the high death toll, which authorities have blamed in part on poorly observed safety regulations, an insufficient number of fire exits and the use of highly flammable building materials.
Authorities have arrested 14 people — the venue’s owner and 10 employees as well as three people suspected of having set off the fireworks, the interior minister said.
Safety standards are often poorly observed in Iraq, a country still recovering from decades of dictatorship, war and unrest that remains plagued by corruption, mismanagement and often dilapidated infrastructure.
In 2021, dozens of people were killed in two separate fires that both raged through hospital wards.
A previous major tragedy struck Mosul in 2019, when at least 100 people, mostly women and children, died when an overcrowded ferry sank in the Tigris river.
The civil defense reported that the reception hall used prefabricated panels that were “highly flammable and contravened safety standards.”
These panels ignited instantly when they came into contact with the indoor fireworks.
In the chaos, guests found themselves in a rush, hindered by the hall’s inadequate emergency exits, according to the civil defense.
“While the bride and groom were dancing, the sprays of sparks were activated,” said Ronak Sabih, a 41-year-old survivor.
“There were feather decorations on the ceiling and they caught fire. The flames were terrible,” the man who returned Wednesday to inspect the disaster site said.
“My family was on the floor and I started pulling them out. There were people on top of us. We started screaming,” he said, his voice shaking.
“We called the fire department. We called everyone,” he said.
“From that door, I pulled out bodies. I carried them in my arms. We wrapped them in blankets to take them to the hospital.”