Mass Graves Testify to Saddam's Evil; Investigators of Iraq's Killing Grounds Have Turned Up 270 Mass Grave Sites and an Estimated 400,000 Victims So Far, Bearing Witness to Saddam Hussein's Depravity

Insight on the News, March 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

Mass Graves Testify to Saddam's Evil; Investigators of Iraq's Killing Grounds Have Turned Up 270 Mass Grave Sites and an Estimated 400,000 Victims So Far, Bearing Witness to Saddam Hussein's Depravity


Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

Allied forces driving toward Berlin at the end of World War II discovered the Nazi death camps that contained the corpses and barely living remains of Jews and other enemies of national socialism. When the scale of brutality and murder carefully was laid bare, filmed and documented, a deeply shocked world promised, "Never again!"

But within only a few years the Chinese communists were murdering millions of "small landlords." In the 1970s, Pol Pot succeeded in killing two-thirds of the Cambodian population. Countless dead filled the countryside of the former Yugoslavia, and in 1994 militant Hutus murdered as many as a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates within only three months, supposedly protected by the French government which, in fact, withdrew its troops and ignored by the United States and the United Nations.

Now another pandemic of mass murder is being documented, recorded and widely ignored. This time the perpetrator is Saddam Hussein, whose Ba'athist Party was based on that of the Nazis, and accounts of its killing efficiency continue to flow to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that since Saddam was ousted 270 sites of mass graves have been reported. These contain an unknown number of Iraqis, Iranian prisoners of war, Iraqi Kurds and Kuwaiti prisoners among the long list of those Saddam tortured and killed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts the remains in mass graves at 400,000 so far.

When representatives from USAID, the U.S. Army and a host of human-rights organizations are able fully to begin investigations in force, the nature of the crimes against the Iraqi people will be seen in full. It is a massive undertaking.

Melissa Connor, an archaeological consultant to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which lends its support and expertise to investigations of crimes against humanity, has worked as a forensic archaeologist in the mass-graves investigations in Bosnia and Rwanda. Connor gives Insight an idea of what investigators must do to uncover the bodies of Saddam's victims. She explains that such graves are found by analyzing satellite and aerial photos that show disturbed ground or by interviewing witnesses to the killings. USAID indicated in its report on mass graves in Iraq that in some cases executioners have come forward to help find the killing grounds. Sometimes, Connor adds, the bodies are not fully buried and so quite easily found.

Once a mass grave is identified, Connor stresses, there is prework that must be accomplished before shovel is put to ground. A decision must be made as to the goal of the exhumation. Will it be uncovered to return the remains of loved ones to families? Or for advocacy reasons or to help prosecute the guilty? According to USAID, all of these are goals in Iraq [see sidebar, p. 38].

Once such questions are answered, Connor says, the size of the grave must be determined. She says investigators do this by using imaging technologies or by digging a trench to determine the depth and configuration of the burial. According to the USAID report, "Some graves hold a few dozen bodies their arms lashed together and the bullet holes in the backs of skulls testimony to their execution. Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies."

Connor points out that everything must be documented in detail for the purposes of evidence, especially if a war-crimes indictment is anticipated. If the remains are skeletal, Connor says, the examination will be anthropological in nature, but if they are "fleshed" there might be an autopsy. During this stage of investigation the cause of death is found. Connor comments that when the victim has been murdered with a high-caliber machine gun it is quite obvious because bones are completely shattered. Spraying civilians with machine-gun fire was a method used by Saddam's henchmen but more on that later.

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Mass Graves Testify to Saddam's Evil; Investigators of Iraq's Killing Grounds Have Turned Up 270 Mass Grave Sites and an Estimated 400,000 Victims So Far, Bearing Witness to Saddam Hussein's Depravity
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