Iraq faces painful legacy of mass graves
June 25, 2012
Iraqi and American officials looking at one of the
trenches at the Mahawil, Babil site 2006. Photo: New
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BAGHDAD, — Iraq wants to put the legacy
of murderous dictator Saddam Hussein behind it, but
faces a huge need for specialists to excavate mass
graves thought to contain at least half a million
The stakes are high for Iraq, a country seeking
reconciliation with itself, where countless families
lost all trace of their relatives during the
dictator's 1979-2003 rule or the terrible
internecine violence in the years after his
Families have not been able to come to terms with
the loss, as they have never found the bodies of
their loved ones or learned the circumstances of
But the process of excavating the mass graves and
identifying the victims, which could take decades
because of its scope and difficult terrain that
includes landmines and unexploded ordinance,
requires a highly skilled workforce that does not
exist in Iraq.
The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP),
created on the initiative of former US president
Bill Clinton and financed by Western states, has
since 2008 held courses for employees of the
Forensic Institute and the ministry of human rights
aimed at addressing the shortfall.
The courses, offered in Erbil, the capital of the
autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq, include
plastic skeletons buried in the garden of the
hospital where they are held.
"We try to make the scenario as realistic as
possible," said James Fenn, the coordinator of the
programme, pointing to 20 participants who were
carefully digging in the soil.
Gradually, the outlines of a dozen "bodies" emerge,
some with their hands and feet bound, or showing
signs of trauma.
The team makes a thorough record of the "grave",
making drawings on graph paper and lists of bones
and evidence discovered. The approach is very
scientific and rigorous.
"We have learned to use a trowel and to dig without
using machines like bulldozers, as they cause damage
and may erase lots of evidence," said Salah Hussein,
one of the trainees.
One of his colleagues, Thamer Hassan, has a brother
who has been missing since 1987.
"Maybe he is in one of the graves," Hassan said,
adding that despite this, his motivation was his
"duty" as an employee of the ministry of human
Once they have been exhumed, the bones are given to
another team from the Forensic Institute in Baghdad,
who are charged with examining them.
The trainees examine the bones on a table, trying to
determine how many people they might have belonged
to, their age and their sex -- and listing the
details with care.
"It's important for the families," said Dr Dunia
Abboud, a 26-year-old dentist. "A lot of families
lost a member and don't know what happened to them."
"We try to help them," Abboud said. "This helps to
Some 170 people have been trained since 2008, but
the need is huge, said Johnathan McCaskill, the head
of Iraq programmes for ICMP.
The Iraqi government is working under the assumption
that there are 500,000 missing people, but some
estimates put the number of missing from repression
under Saddam's rule,www.ekurd.net
especially against the Kurds and Shiites in the
1980s and 1990s, at more than one million.
"The information we started up with was that there
are at least 270 different mass graves in the
country," McCaskill said.
Most of Iraq's mass graves date from the time of
Saddam's rule, he said, but it is possible that
there are some from the bloody sectarian fighting
that came in the years after his overthrow, in which
tens of thousands of people were killed.
McCaskill said that after Saddam's fall in 2003,
some people began to dig on their own, looking for
relatives, though this has since been prohibited by
The ICMP is also working with the Iraqi government
on a DNA identification programme with much more
But it is complex and expensive. Samples are
currently analysed at the ICMP headquarters in
Meanwhile, the training will continue for at least
two years. But is a course enough to prepare someone
for something so disturbing?
Thamer Hassan thinks so, saying: "I am ready to work
in real graves."
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