Two days after Iran declared its first cases of the novel coronavirus — in what would become one of the largest outbreaks of the illness outside of China — evidence of unusual activity appeared at a cemetery near where the infections emerged.
At the Behesht-e Masoumeh complex in Qom, about 80 miles south of Tehran, the excavation of a new section of the graveyard began as early as Feb. 21, satellite images show, and then rapidly expanded as the virus spread. By the end of the month, two large trenches — their lengths totaling 100 yards — were visible at the site from space.
According to expert analysis, video testimony and official statements, the graves were dug to accommodate the rising number of virus victims in Qom.
Earlier this month, videos surfaced on social media showing vast and hurriedly dug areas in the cemetery. (Maxar Technologies)
In satellite imagery from October, a large section of the cemetery appears unused. The imagery was provided to The Washington Post by Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-based space technology company. (Maxar Technologies)
In the weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus cases in Qom, Iranian authorities dug two large trenches, totaling 100 yards in length, in the previously unused area of the cemetery to accommodate the rising number of victims. (Maxar Technologies)
Satellite imagery from March 1 shows the two trenches. Excavation continued after that. (Maxar Technologies)
“This is the section for coronavirus victims,” the narrator says, as the camera pans across a small portion of the trench, showing mounds of dirt and small, simple markers. People wearing blue protective suits are seen standing nearby. “More than 80 [people] have been buried in this section so far, and they say only 34 deaths,” he says, citing the official death toll on Feb. 28.
In the next video, another narrator says that he is at the Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery on March 3, about two weeks after Iran reported its first cases. By that time, at least 77 people had died of the virus, according to official figures, and more than 2,000 people were infected, though information from Tehran hospitals reviewed by The Washington Post strongly suggests the outbreak is far larger.
“A worker told me that they must have buried more than 250 coronavirus victims so far,” the caption reads. As the narrator walks across the cemetery grounds, he points the camera down to highlight what he says are new burials. “These are all graves and they are fresh,” he says, at one point using a gloved index finger to direct the viewer to the plots on the horizon. “These are all from the last few days,” he continues. “And as you can see, it goes on until the end.”