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'No Reason to Keep Living:' Assyrian Wedding Fire Burns All Hope
By Julian Bechocha
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The destroyed interior of Haytham Hall in Hamdaniya district on September 28, 2023. ( Julian Bechocha/Rudaw)
Baghdede, Iraq -- The haunting screams of victims' loved ones, harrowing sights as endless coffins poured into a desolate graveyard, and the undeniable loss of "complete hope" all compound the intense scale of devastation that Hamdaniya's Assyrian Christian community is suffering due to a catastrophic wedding fire on Tuesday. The community is on its knees.

Hamdaniya on Thursday resembled a horror zone as its distraught community woke up to a second morning of intense grief. Families, friends, and loved ones of victims headed to church and later made their way to a barren, dilapidated graveyard on the outskirts of town, mourning the loss of over a hundred of their kin and laying them to rest -- a devastating incident easily preventable if endemic corruption in Iraq was not a lingering plague.

Tragedy struck the Assyrian Christian town of Hamdaniya in Nineveh province, also known as Qaraqosh or Bakhdida, on Tuesday night during a joyous wedding with scenes of celebration and laughter soon derailed into a hellish nightmare, when fireworks projected from the floor set the banquet hall's plastic, highly-flammable ceiling ablaze during a packed wedding of over a thousand attendees.

In just a few hours, over 114 had died and hundreds more were injured, as the hall completely burned down and the roof caved in.

Screams, ululates and relentless cries echoed over the courtyard of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira al-Kubra) in the morning as families and loved ones of victims exited the funeral mass for the victim. Many were beating themselves, unable to control the intense feelings of grief that the tragedy inflicted.

"My sweet, sweet wife, my life partner, how am I supposed to continue living? Fifty-six years we were married. You are and will always be my home and my happiness. I have now lost the purpose to keep living. I am eighty years old and hope that Jesus Christ will put me out of my misery soon," Francis Butrus, an elderly Assyrian Christian deacon at the church who lost his wife in the tragedy, told Rudaw English outside the church.

"I will now go to bury the forever love of my life. What kind of celebration was that? It is a complete tragedy and my mind still cannot comprehend all the damage," a visibly distraught Butrus said, giving in to his emotions with the weight of the agony too heavy to not break down. "I have no reason to keep living."

Scenes from the Hamdaniya graveyard as families and loved ones of victims mourn the dead. ( Bilind T. Abdullah/Rudaw)

A mass funeral

The town essentially resembled a massive funeral, with fabric tents exclusively for funerals lining its narrow streets and virtually every single family has suffered tremendous losses. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, daughters, grandparents, and grandchildren -- the inferno showed no remorse and did not spare a soul. Entire families perished in the flames.

An elderly woman outside the church explicitly held the Iraqi government responsible for "extreme and unforgivable negligence" that led to the tragedy, lamenting the outcome of the easily preventable incident and calling for urgent explanations.

"The authorities have blood on their hands. Blood. How will I ever forget this suffering? I am old and my best days are behind me, but so many of our young, innocent youth, will soon be burned underground without a chance at life, without hope, and with a government that has categorically failed them. Curse this wretched government," the woman who declined to be named out of fear of reprisal despite the circumstances told Rudaw English.

The bride and groom, named Haneen and Rivan, survived the fire after escaping through the kitchen door, contradicting initial reports that they had died. They were treated at an Erbil hospital before returning to Hamdaniya.

Funeral mass for the victims of Tuesday's deadly wedding fire at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira al-Kubra) in Nineveh province's Hamdaniya district on September 28, 2023. ( Julian Bechocha/Rudaw)

While alive, their psychological situation is dire and they have lost many family members.

"The bride lost her whole family -- three brothers, all of her uncles and her young cousins. The groom lost his mother," Jamil al-Jamil, a friend of the couple, told AFP news agency.

'Empty promises'

It was yet another easily preventable tragedy in Iraq, and another instance of Iraqi government officials reiterating their commitment to do better and prevent such disasters from happening. The people, however, "will not believe a single word from the government" and "have lost all hope in this cursed country," with residents claiming that the hall's owner had received multiple warnings to not host parties but was able to continue operating through bribes and powerful connections.

"I would always say that maybe I should give this country one more chance when disasters would occur, but this time I have had enough. This time, the rich and corrupt became even richer and more corrupt at the expense of my innocent daughter. I do not want to breathe this country's air any longer," a wailing mother shouted inside a graveyard on the outskirts of Hamdaniya, as she watched her daughter be put to rest.

In 2019, Iraqi authorities uttered similar remarks of promised improvement after a deadly tragedy struck a ferry in Mosul as it capsized in the Tigris River, killing at least 100 people including 12 children.

Residents and journalists wait for the arrival of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani before the Saint Behnam Syriac Catholic Church in Hamdaniya on September 28, 2023. ( Julian Bechocha/Rudaw)

"Just as they lied about improvement after the ferry nightmare, they will laugh, eat their meals on a happy stomach, and lie again. We are the only victims," the woman screamed.

Kindness yet prevails

After the bodies of the victims were buried, the uncontrollable screams and cries of mourners intensified as they began to exit through the graveyard's main gate. Volunteer teams and residents of the scattered houses near the isolated cemetery handed out plastic cups of cold water to the suffering families and other funeral-goers, carrying an ancient tradition of kindness despite reeling from terrible atrocities.

"I lost my brother and sister to this tragedy, but what can I do? Life goes on and I can only hope that flowers will bloom from their graves," Behnam Issac, 60, told Rudaw English as he was distributing water near his house.

"Christians in this country are driven from one tragedy to the next," he added.

Elsewhere near the Saint Behnam Syriac Catholic Church in central Hamdaniya, residents awaited the arrival of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani amid a heavy security presence. As the prime minister arrived, some locals smirked and commented on his arrival, saying the visit is only to enhance public image.

"The people die and the men in suits arrive to condemn the incidents. We have had enough of this," a Hamdaniya local told Rudaw English outside the church as Sudani exited his car in a long, armored convoy.

'Contravened safety standards'

The blaze was triggered by fireworks directed at a highly-flammable ceiling built with a plastic material deemed illegal by the Iraqi government.

Iraqi civil defense said on Wednesday that the usage of plastic panels for the hall's ceiling was illegal, "highly flammable, and contravened safety standards."

Hamdaniya Mayor Issam Bahnam told Rudaw on Wednesday that the owner of the banquet hall ahd previously been alerted that the material used in the building was illegal due to its flammability, and was asked to remove it. The owner, however, argued that the material was yet to be illegalized when the hall was initially built in 2012.

In war-scarred Iraq, safety standards are often ignored as sub-standard buildings, such as Hamdaniya's Haytham Hall, lack adequate fire extinguishers and emergency facilities such as evacuation doors.

Rudaw English was unable to gain authorization to enter Haytham Hall due to an ongoing Iraqi civil defense and special forces operation to uncover possible corpses of victims inside the hall.

A corpse was pulled out by civil defense teams from underneath the charred remains of the rubble on Thursday afternoon. Civil defense teams said at the site that they are expecting further bodies underneath the destruction.

The country is known for frequent fires in the summer, whether in government buildings or private facilities, but a recent string of fires at this time of the year raises concerns about the adequacy of the preventative measures that the government pledged to tackle over two years ago, after a series of blazes destroyed major hospitals, leaving dozens dead and injured.

On Wednesday, Iraq's interior ministry announced that 14 individuals had been arrested in relation to the tragic Hamdaniya fire. The ministry said that the findings of a previously-launched investigation will be announced in the coming days.

Hamdaniya is one of Iraq's only Christian-majority districts, located in the Nineveh Plains near Mosul, a historic Assyrian region. Like many Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains, it was taken over by Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists during their brazen sweep of northern Iraq, where they declared a so-called "caliphate" and inflicted grave atrocities on minority groups, including Christians.

The Assyrian Christian towns were retaken by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in 2017 when ISIS was driven out of the area. Hamdaniya was visited by Pope Francis during his historic visit to Iraq in 2021.

Recovery has been slow, with many Christians unwilling to go back to their hometowns which their ancestors have called home for millennia, citing security concerns, the presence of foreign militias in the areas, and the lack of economic opportunities.

Fading hope

Hamdaniya is one of the towns recovering best from the reign of ISIS, with its churches being gradually rebuilt and its remaining inhabitants in Iraq slowly returning.

However, residents now say that the inferno, which struck on a day that should have known little but celebration and joy, has mired them in intense grief and decimated their tightly-packed community.

Wardiya Shabo, a middle-aged woman mourning the loss of her father dressed in full black attire, looked out towards the haunting remains of Haytham Hall, a site that used to resemble celebration, happiness, and the coming together of newly-weds as they bonded in endless love, but now is explicitly associated with a deadly tragedy.

"May Jesus Christ have mercy on our souls," she sighed.

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