THE DESERT WEST OF NAJAF, Iraq -- There are no signs to signal the way to the New Valley of Peace, or, as the Iraqis call it, the "Corona cemetery." But it's not hard to find: Just follow the cars. It's the only place they are headed on the rough desert road.
Ground was broken on this cemetery in southern Iraq four months ago, and already there are more than 3,200 graves. The backhoes work every night to make new furrows in the sandy soil.
"We are waiting for our mother," said Ali Radhi, 49, from Nasiriyah as he stood by his car at the cemetery's gate in the blazing summer sun earlier this month, when midafternoon temperatures hit 115 degrees. "She died two days ago, but now with corona, we cannot bring her. We have to wait for the ambulance to carry her."
"There are some rituals we should be doing, but with corona we cannot even touch her body and we did not hold a funeral," he added softly, staring up the road as if willing the ambulance carrying his mother's body to appear on the horizon.
In Islam, burial should be done quickly, if possible within 24 hours of death. The body should be ritually cleansed by professional washers, but the family can be present -- men at the washing of a male relative, women of a female one.
The story of how the cemetery came into existence starts when the first coronavirus patients began to die in March in Baghdad.
Religious and health authorities were unprepared for the sense of stigma that having the disease carried, as well as the fear that touching the body would risk contagion. Cemeteries refused to take those who had died of covid-19 because people whose relatives had not died of the virus felt it was a stigma to be buried next to someone who had.
While scientists have not established how long the virus survives in a person who has died of it, they believe it might linger for as much as a few hours and could be on materials used in wrapping and transporting bodies.
"I began to see these scenes on TV -- I still remember them -- there were seven or eight bodies thrown outside a hospital morgue and they left them there," recalled Sheikh Tahir Al-Khaqani, who is head of the Imam Ali Combat Division, one of the first militias created to fight the Islamic State group. Unlike some of the militias that are close to Iran, the Imam Ali brigade is linked to the moderate, inclusive senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.
The idea came to Al-Khaqani that the solution was a new graveyard just for those who died of the coronavirus. He conferred with the governor of Najaf, with al-Sistani and with the leader of the Shia Endowment, which is in charge of all Shiite financial and real estate matters.
Within days, they had a 1,500-acre patch of ground 20 miles from the city of Najaf, allocated for the burials.
The Imam Ali combat division volunteered to run the cemetery. Its medical teams took on the job of receiving the dead, disinfecting the body bags in which they arrived and then washing the deceased.
Other contingents took responsibility for the digging and burials. Some took on the role of guides to help family members when they come to find their relative's grave among the thousands stretching out across the desert. Family visits are permitted 10 days after burial.
Under orders from the grand ayatollah, although the graveyard is run by Shiites, it welcomes everyone regardless of faith or sect and burial is free.
The cemetery entrance is nothing more than a metal skeleton frame in the shape of a grand mosque door. Beyond stretches the desert, glittering in the sun, with row after row after row of graves, each with the words of the Quran: "This is the will of Allah."