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Grief, anger at Iraq mass for victims of wedding fire

By AFP - Sep 28,2023 - Last updated at Sep 28,2023

A firefighter checks the damage in an event hall in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniyah, after a fire broke out during a wedding, killing at least 100 people and injuring more than 150, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

QARAQOSH — Survivors of a fire that tore through an Iraqi wedding and those mourning the at least 100 lives lost filled the pews for a Christian mass Thursday, two days after the disaster.

Mourners wept or quietly embraced one another under the arches of the Syriac Catholic church of Al-Tahera, where portraits of the dead lined the stairs, showing men, women and children of all ages.

"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 hall constructed from highly combustible building materials.

At least 150 people suffered burns, smoke inhalation or crush injuries sustained in the stampede when the nearly 900 panicked guests tried to escape through the hall’s few exits.

Some of those killed were buried on Wednesday, but more funerals are planned for coming days.

Both bride and groom survived the fire, their “minor burns” far outweighed by the crushing blow of losing so many family members, a friend of the couple, Jamil al-Jamil, told AFP.

“The bride lost her whole family — three brothers, all of her uncles and her young cousins. The groom lost his mother,” Jamil said.


Fourteen arrests 


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 the Daesh group’s rule from 2014 to 2017.

The town, also known as Hamdaniyah, is now home to 26,000 Christians — half of its original population.

At the church, which Pope Francis visited in March 2021, many of the bereaved sobbed quietly, joined by a few survivors with bandaged wounds.

Prime Minister Mohamed 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.

Sudani demanded “the toughest punishments permitted by law for those responsible for negligence or failings that led to this tragic fire”.

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.


‘Joy to sadness’ 


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 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.

Among the mourners at the Al Tahera church was Riad Bahnam, 53, who came to pray for his sister-in-law and his six-year-old great-niece, both of whom died in the flames.

He likened the fire to “the tragedy of the boat in Mosul” and said the wedding had been a moment of “joy which turned into sadness and anger”.

Bahnam voiced anger at the “human error” he blamed for the deadly tragedy that heaped suffering on the small community.

Any official “who has committed negligence in giving the required authorisations to the owner is also responsible”, he charged.

“They are supposed to demand compliance with safety standards.”

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