I will be writing a full article on my visit to the mass graves, but I wanted to write a post here to provide something of a preview. My trip began on Friday with a drive down to Al Hillah. I was traveling with a representative of USAID, and therefore had the benefit of an armored SUV and a security detail. The road to Hillah from Baghdad is Rte. 1, a highway which Saddam reportedly built and maintained in order to facilitate his incursion into Kuwait. The road has been closed to non-Coalition traffic, and has numerous checkpoints along the way. As we drew further south, we entered the Multi National area of operations overseen by the Polish forces, and encountered a number of the Poles.
In Hillah on Friday I met with representatives of several human rights organizations operating in the area. Muhannad Al-Dolaimy, the general prosecutor and director of the Human Rights Association, explained how Saddam’s Deputy, Taha Yasin Ramadan, paid 300 Iraqi Dinars for each Shia a local sheik would bring to be tortured and killed. Far from disavowing the actions of the sheik, Saddam appeared on television with him, and thanked him for his efforts in putting down the 1991 Shia uprising. Despite some recent claims that the number of mass graves is less than expected, the groups continue to find mass graves, and have not been able to continue the exhumation process at the previous pace due to a lack of funding.
There are seven confirmed mass grave sites in the Hillah/Babyl area, from which approximately 25,000 bodies have been discovered. On Saturday, I visited the mass grave at Mahaweel, where 3,000 bodies have been unearthed. The bodies have been exhumed, however the groups left the clothes of victims who could not be identified over their graves, so that family members could use these items to help identify some of the unknown victims. The area now is simply a field marked off with concertina wire, containing mound after mound marking graves as far as the eye can see. It is easy to forget that these mounds marked graves, until you see a sweater, or a shoe, or a belt which belonged to the deceased.
From Mahaweel, we went to the headquarters of the Association of Free Prisoners—a group devoted to finding and documenting political prisoners in Iraq who have been freed, are missing, or were killed. The headquarters is in a bad part of town, and so the security detail was edgy about the trip. Accordingly, if there was not a spot to park close to the building, we would not be stopping. Thankfully, there was a spot directly in front. Even so, they requested that we keep the visit as short as possible.
The building itself looked like something of a museum dedicated to Saddam’s victims. The walls were lined with pictures of those who were found in the mass graves, as well as articles, such as watches, combs, coins, and ID cards, that were found at the grave sites. I first met with Karama Tehsin, who held pictures of her son and husband who disappeared from the market where they worked in 1991. She did not know that they were killed until their bodies were discovered at Mahaweel last year. Saddam’s government did not want to risk another uprising, and so his agents would spread misinformation about those who were killed. Karama explained how his Saddam’s agents would tell her that her son and husband were in prison, and would come periodically to tell her that they had been transferred to another location. They would also seek money from Karama, offering to help her find exactly where her family members were—money which she paid. For the 12 years between when they were captured and when their bodies were found, she explained that every time a knock came at the door, she held out hope that it would bring good news as to the whereabouts of her loved ones. But good news did not come, and when the excavation began at Mahaweel, they were able to identify her husband and son based on their ID cards. “Thank God we were able to give them a proper burial,” she explained. When I asked who she blamed for what happened, she said “Saddam” without hesitation, and when I asked what would bring justice for her loved ones, she said, “[t]he same way he killed them, he should be killed.”
I then met with Hassan Alawa Hussein, who knows a thing or two about Mahaweel: he was there when the mass executions took place. He was abducted and first taken to a locations where he was tortured with electrical shocks to his ears, teeth, hands, fingers, and toes. He was then blindfolded and his hands were tied behind his back for a trip by truck with many other prisoners to Mahaweel. There, the prisoners were unloaded in a ditch, where the soldiers began beating them repeatedly with sticks. Then they opened fire on the prisoners. A bullet hit Hassan in the leg, and he fell into a pile with the other bodies. There he lay for three hours, pretending to be dead while the soldiers moved around in the near distance. When he could not hear the soldiers for about 15 minutes, he got up, to discover that there were two others who survived the shootings. They made their way out of the area in the time that the grave was unguarded. This time was provided at great cost: the soldiers had simply gone to refill the truck with prisoners to transport to Mahaweel. Hassan is now a volunteer at the Association of Free Prisoners, where he helps other families to locate their lost loved ones.
The USAID was ultimately very helpful in setting up the meetings and getting me to the grave site, and for this I am grateful. What is disappointing, however, is that it took multiple requests of various individuals in the Coalition Press offices in order to get connected to the people to make this happen. Quite simply, the press office over here has not taken an active enough role in making these sites available. When I talked to members of the administration here, they seemed to think that the fact that Amb. Negroponte and Amb. Bremer visited was substantial coverage. But these events were mere blips on the media radar screen. For all the coverage of Abu Ghraib—for all the details we know about those incidents—there is still much we do not know about the systematic mass executions conducted by Saddam Hussein.