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Iraq: Iraqis Open Saddam Hussein's Mass Graves, Demand Justice (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

Tens of thousands of Iraqis disappeared during Saddam Hussein's three decades in power and were presumed to have been executed or imprisoned. Now, with mass graves being discovered and excavated, the fate of those who disappeared may finally be learned. In the first of a four-part series on Iraq's missing, RFE/RL looks at how ordinary Iraqis are discovering what became of their loved ones and demanding their killers be brought to justice.

Prague, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The mass graves emerging in Iraq are so numerous and, in many cases, so extensive, they are no longer being excavated every day due to simple exhaustion.

So far, some 100 mass graves have been found throughout Iraq. It will take months, if not years, to exhume the people buried there. The biggest of the graves has already given up 3,000 dead and by some estimates contains at least twice that many more. And most Iraqis believe there are hundreds of other sites waiting to be discovered.

Many of the exhumed bodies -- reduced to skeletons after a decade or more underground -- now lie unclaimed in village meeting halls. The bones and bits of clothing fill hundreds of cloth bags set on tables. Crowds of people examine the bags, looking for the remains of missing loved ones.

RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite visited one village hall last month near Al-Musayyib, a town 50 kilometers south of Baghdad. He found scores of people quietly untying the bundles, then retying them as the scraps of clothes, shoes or paper inside offered no clues as to whom the bones belonged to.

One man, Husayn Abid Hashem, was wrestling over whether to take one of the bundles home to bury. Did the bones really belong to his brother Abas? "I found things which may belong to him. Is it really him? I cannot take a body if I am not 100 percent sure," he said.

Hashem had been looking for his brother for weeks since the first discovery of a mass grave in Iraq in May near the southern Iraqi town of Al-Hillah set off a chain reaction of digging at other sites.

"We searched in the mass grave in front of a house called Abu Tayara. And in the Mahawil area. We searched, and we found nothing. You cannot tell," Hashem said. "How can you tell [which bones belong to him]? He went out dressed in ordinary clothes. He was dressed in blue and had no documents. How can I manage to identify him?"

The places Hashem mentions are local killing fields where villagers say Hussein's forces executed and buried Iraqi Shi'a suspected of rebelling in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. Nobody knows how many Shi'a were killed. And until Hussein was toppled by U.S. and British forces in April, no one dared to look for their dead or even grieve publicly.

Some of the people in the village hall in Al-Musayyib said they know who killed their relatives. One such man is Muhammad Mehdi Kathem, who said he lost three sons and now wants revenge. Kathem said he was arrested in 1991 with his sons and saw them tied up and driven away.

"It was Abdiz Zahara [the leader of the local branch of the Ba'ath Party] who did it," he said. "They dragged me and threw me in the street and questioned me about my sons' participation in the [1991] uprising. They tied them up, put them in a car and took them to Al-Mahawil [military base]."

The man he accuses is no longer in the area and is very likely in hiding elsewhere in Iraq. Many top security officials in Hussein's Iraq were posted to areas far from their own hometowns so they would be free of family ties and compassion.

The thousands of Iraqi Shi'a killed in 1991 are among the largest group of Iraqis who disappeared during the Ba'athist regime, but they are far from the only ones. In the north of the country, Iraqi Kurds are also beginning to uncover mass graves left from the so-called Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, which took revenge for Kurdish guerrillas having sided against him in the Iran-Iraq war.

Thousands of other Iraqis across the spectrum of religious and ethnic groups were imprisoned as opponents of the regime. They, too, are unaccounted for, although today most of the country's jails are empty. Hussein emptied his prisons in a general amnesty just before the recent war to increase his popularity. But most of those who were released are reported to have been common criminals, while political prisoners -- usually held in the secret jails of security agencies -- may have been killed.

Nor are all those who disappeared Iraqis. Among the missing, too, are some 600 people, mostly Kuwaitis, taken when Baghdad invaded the emirate in 1990. So far, only two of them have been identified from among the bodies removed from the mass graves.

Now that Hussein's regime is gone, ordinary Iraqis and the country's U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority must decide how to deal with the legacy of many thousands of dead or unaccounted for. After conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo, international organizations stepped in to help excavate mass graves and to collect evidence for criminal trials. So far, it remains unclear who will collect such evidence in Iraq or conduct such trials.

A senior official with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, Mona Rishmawi, told RFE/RL there is a need for a comprehensive strategy to be adopted soon. "Clearly, the issue is very serious for the families, for the victims," she said. "Basically, a lot of people here, they are talking about three things, basically. They are talking about closure and a dignified burial for their loved ones. They are also talking about a process of justice. And they are talking about -- what I hear a lot -- is they are talking about a process of compensation."

Part 2 of the series looks more fully at who the victims were.