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The Story Behind Iraq's Mass Graves

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The Story Behind Iraq's Mass Graves
(Photo by Erik de Castro-Pool/Getty Images)
As we neared the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, yet another mass grave was discovered in a country that is pocked with crude burial sites dating back to Saddam Hussein's Baathist rule that began in 1979. That grave -- the largest yet in Diyala province -- was discovered March 7, 2008, near an orchard, and contains the remains of about 100 people, the decomposition initially suggesting that they had been there for some time.

Unfortunately, the discovery is nothing new. The best way to get an idea of the magnitude of these finds is to check out this album that Iraqis have kept, detailing the business of trying to identify the victims, trying to find answers, and mourning the dead. How the bodies are found at each site tell a story: victims blindfolded, victims shot at point-blank range, victims including women and children, and sometimes women clutching children. How the families are sent home with plastic bags containing the remains of their loved ones, with shrouded women and men alike wailing over the cold, plain bags.

Who are the people in these graves? The State Department says most identified graves contain victims from:

  • "The 1983 attack against Kurdish citizens belonging to the Barzani tribe, 8,000 of whom were rounded up by the regime in northern Iraq and executed in deserts at great distances from their homes.

  • The 1988 Anfal campaign, during which as many as 182,000 people disappeared. Most of the men were separated from their families and were executed in deserts in the west and southwest of Iraq. The remains of some of their wives and children have also been found in mass graves.

  • Chemical attacks against Kurdish villages from 1986 to 1988, including the Halabja attack, when the Iraqi Air Force dropped sarin, VX and tabun chemical agents on the civilian population, killing 5,000 people immediately and causing long-term medical problems, related deaths, and birth defects among the progeny of thousands more.

  • The 1991 massacre of Iraqi Shi’a Muslims after the Shi’a uprising at the end of the Gulf war, in which tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians in such regions as Basra and Al-Hillah were killed.

  • The 1991 Kurdish massacre, which targeted civilians and soldiers who fought for autonomy in northern Iraq after the Gulf war."

A man named Taimour spoke to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in 2005 about surviving one of these purges:

    "In 1988, I was 12 years old and lived in a village in north of Iraq with my family. One day the Iraqi government brought some tanks and helicopters and soldiers. They came to the village and they burned down more than 4,500 villages, including my village. They took us to a huge military base, which also can be a jail, on the border of Iran and Iraq. ...

    After ten days they took us to a military base for mainly Kurdish people. Before we entered the jail they separated the men from the women. They put the children and the women on the side and put them in jail. Of course, the same thing happened there. The weather was very hot and we barely had food, a lot of children died because of hunger and a lot of women were raped. The Iraqi soldiers would come into the jail and look at women and whichever they preferred they would take her, rape her and kill her.

    After living for thirty days a horrible life there, 6:00 o’clock one morning they brought 30 buses that were closed—no windows—and you could barely breathe. They put children and women in there and they drove all the day until 7:00 o’clock at night. When we got to the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, before we got to the place where they were to shoot us and kill us, they took everybody out and they gave us some water. I think the water had some kind of drug because when I drank the water my whole body became numb. I couldn’t even feel it.

    They handcuffed me, they closed my eyes and they threw me into the bus—not just me but everybody else. They drove another ten minutes and then stopped. When they stopped they opened the door, and when they opened the door I opened my eyes and I looked. There were holes dug for us with bulldozers. A lot of holes were dug. I would say more than a hundred holes, and they threw everybody in there and they waited for the weather to get dark and then they started shooting at innocent people, children and women, with machine guns, AK-47s.

    There was a woman who was pregnant and about to give birth inside the car when they were driving. They threw her into the hole and they shot her so many times her stomach got ripped and the baby fell out. This is something I saw with my own eyes—I was there in the same hole.

    I got shot in my left shoulder. I tried to run at the soldier—I was trying to stop the shooting, which I couldn’t. I was trying to tell him—I didn’t speak Arabic at that time—I was trying to tell him that we’re just children and women. We’re innocent people. We haven’t done anything. There’s no reason for you guys to kill us. It didn’t work. They threw me back into the hole and they started shooting at us again, and that’s when I got three to four bullets in my back. ..."

Taimour played dead, taking cover under other bodies, waited until dark and till he could no longer hear soldiers above, and was able to stagger away. He went as far as he could before collapsing, and he was rescued by Bedouins.

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