Iraq continues to exhume mass graves

A noisy backhoe digs through the earth to uncover another mass grave in Iraq, human remains are exhumed and forensic experts get to work on their sinister task.

A skull is freed from a layer of clay, a tibia is placed in a body bag, all bound for a laboratory to be genetically checked against blood samples from relatives of the missing.

The site near the central shrine city of Najaf is one of many in a country that has suffered over four decades of conflict and bloody unrest.

Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. Then came the 1991 Gulf War against Kuwait, then the US-led invasion in 2003, years of sectarian bloodshed and, more recently, the Islamic State’s reign of terror until 2017.

The years of violence have made Iraq one of the countries with the highest number of missing people in the world, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In Najaf, work began in May to dig up a 1,500 square meter plot to exhume the bones of around 100 victims of the 1991 uprising against Saddam, AFP reported.

The mass grave was discovered by chance when property developers wanted to prepare the land for construction.

Intissar Mohammed has been ordered to provide a drop of her blood as a sample as authorities suspect her brother’s remains may be found in the mass grave.

Hamid disappeared in 1980 under the iron-fisted regime of Saddam.

At the time, Intissar and the rest of the family moved to neighboring Syria, but Hamid remained in Iraq for his studies, planning to join his family later.

“We waited for him, but he never came,” a tearful Intissar recalled. The young man was reportedly kidnapped, she said, “and we never heard from him again.”

Intissar, who returned to Iraq in 2011, remains hopeful of finding out more.

His DNA will be “compared to the bones found in situ”, said Wissam Radi, a technician at the forensic medicine service in Najaf.

The identification process takes time and exhausts the patience of loved ones, who often complain of feeling abandoned.

Opening a mass grave is a daunting task and “the biggest hurdles are financial,” said Dergham Kamel of the Martyrs’ Foundation, a state body charged with running mass graves.

He said another government institution, the Mass Graves Protection Directorate, received “no government funding” between 2016 and 2021.

The centralization of the Iraqi system is another obstacle because genetic comparisons are carried out exclusively in the capital Baghdad.

In the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq, forensic scientists are making slow progress in analyzing some 200 mass graves left behind by the militants.

Hassan al-Anazi, director of forensic medicine in the northern province of Ninawa, has requested that the missing persons database include all IS victims in the region, but so far to no avail.

“There are thousands of people missing,” he said. “Every day, about thirty families come to see us to ask about their loved ones.”

However, he said, “due to a lack of political will”, the Khasfa mass grave in Mosul, one of the largest, has still not been opened.

It contains the remains of officers, doctors and academics killed by ISIS, with a total of around 4,000 casualties.

Mosul’s bereaved mother, Umm Ahmed, is seeking information on the fate of her sons, policemen Ahmed and Faris, who were abducted by ISIS when it took control of the city.

“I knocked on every door,” she said. “I even went to Baghdad. But I didn’t get an answer.”

The lack of information also poses a financial problem. Until the remains of a missing person have been identified, relatives receive no compensation from the Iraqi state.

In many cases, the fathers, sons and brothers killed by ISIS were the breadwinners.

To help families, Dalia al-Mamari created The Human Line association in Mosul, which advises on the compensation process.

“The government is very slow,” she said. “Often all they tell us is, ‘Your children are dead, may God have mercy on them’.”


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