Bodies Exhumed from Mass Grave in Iraq
Remains Could Be Victims of Saddam's Crackdown on Shiites
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May 14, 2003 -- The largest mass grave found so far in Iraq has been discovered about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis have gathered in the town of Hilla, looking for missing relatives. Local people say 3,000 bodies have been removed. Thousands more may still be buried. Human rights experts fear that valuable evidence for trials of regime leaders is disappearing.
"Farmers once grew crops here in this field," NPR's Christopher Joyce says in a report for All Things Considered. "Now a yellow backhoe takes great divots out of the barren ground. About 1,000 Iraqis watch, held back by a coil of barbed wire. Many hold photographs of missing relatives."
A clot of shouting men comes rumbling over a hill of excavated dirt. In the middle is Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi expatriate who wants to build a new government. The men are shouting at him. One says he lost four brothers and pleads for help finding them.
Nearby, a group of U.S. Marines watches. Lt. Col. Dave Rabbaddi says most of the remains excavated are those of males, although there are women and children among them. "I think the youngest I've seen is like a 5-year-old little girl," Rabbaddi says. "You can tell by the size of the dress."
The Marines are there to help, with tents and plastic bags for remains -- but not to excavate or protect the site, Rabbaddi says.
Dr. Rafit al Husseini is overseeing the volunteers -- neighbors and friends from his village -- who have come to exhume the remains. He is also looking for what remains of his relatives.
At the main pit, a backhoe "creaks like an old door," Joyce says. "Volunteers kneel and pick through each shovelful of dirt. When they find bones, they put them in a clear plastic bag. A man finds an ID card in the dirt and wipes it clean with his thumb." A record is made of the name on card, then the bag is numbered and carried away.
Peter Bouchaert, with the group Human Rights Watch, says most of the dead were killed in 1991, after the failed uprising against Saddam Hussein. But how many of the buried died fighting and how many were murdered may never be known. U.S. coalition forces have failed to bring in the kind of forensic experts who are needed to exhume the graves.
"Exhuming a mass grave with a bulldozer is like going pigeon-hunting with a tank. It's making our work very difficult," Boukaert says.
Joyce reports that "with each sweep of the backhoe, evidence of crimes against humanity is lost. Bullets and shell casings, blindfolds, hands bound at the wrist. These are signs of mass murder. Graves should be exhumed with trowels and paint brushes. A chain of evidence must not be broken before the day of a trial."
One of the volunteers climbs on the roof of a white truck and reads through a megaphone the latest tally of victims identified today. The crowd turns quiet as it listens.
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