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From Saddam Hussein to ISIS: Iraq continues to search its mass graves

NAJAF: The excavator hums and the forensic scientists get to work: in Najaf, as in many places in Iraq, bones are being exhumed for identification, a titanic task in a country where mass graves bear witness to the horror of past conflicts.

The scene repeats itself over and over again. A skull is stripped of a layer of clay, a tibia placed in a body bag and the investigative work can begin in the laboratory, where the bones will be crossed with blood samples from relatives of the disappeared.

Since 1980 and the war with Iran, Iraq has lived from dictatorship to conflict, from the regime of Saddam Hussein to the sectarian war of 2006-2008 to the reign of terror of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS), defeated in 2017. So many victims, so many mass graves.

Iraq is also one of the countries with the highest number of missing persons, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In Najaf (center), excavations began in May on a plot of approximately 1,500 m2 to exhume the bones of victims of the repression of the anti-Saddam uprising of 1991. The mass grave, where the remains of a hundred missing, was discovered when developers wanted to prepare the ground before the construction of buildings.

He never came»

Intissar Mohammed was summoned to donate a drop of blood, authorities believing her brother’s remains may be in the mass grave.

Hamid disappeared in 1980, under Saddam Hussein. At the time, his sister Intissar and the whole family settled in Syria. Hamid stays in Iraq for his studies with the promise to join them afterwards.

“We waited for him, but he never came,” says Intissar Mohammed between two sobs. The young man was reportedly kidnapped by strangers “and we never heard from them again,” she said.

Back in Iraq in 2011, Intissar still hopes to find out more. The drop of blood she gave will be “compared with the bones found in situ”, explains Wissam Radi, a forensic technician from Najaf.

But the identification process takes time and wears down the patience of loved ones who sometimes feel abandoned.

Because opening a mass grave and identifying the victims has a cost and “the most important obstacles are financial”, explains Dergham Kamel of the Martyrs’ Foundation, a government institution responsible for the management of mass graves.

The Directorate for the Protection of Mass Graves received “no government funding” between 2016 and 2021, he said.

And we have to reckon with the centralization of Iraq which slows everything down, genetic comparisons being carried out exclusively in Baghdad.

In Mosul, which IS held from 2014 to 2017, and in northern Iraq, forensic scientists are making slow progress in analyzing some 200 mass graves left by the jihadists.

May God have mercy»

Hassan al-Anazi, director of forensic medicine in Nineveh, a province of which Mosul is the capital, is asking for the database of the missing to include the identities of all the victims of IS in the region. In vain.

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

However, for lack of political will, “the mass grave of Khasfa (in Mosul), one of the largest, has still not been opened. It contains the remains of officers, doctors and academics killed by the EI” and would have around 4,000 victims.

Oum Ahmed is looking for information on the fate of her sons. Ahmed and Faris were police officers when IS took over Mosul in 2014. They were kidnapped by jihadists and disappeared.

“I knocked on every door. I even went to Baghdad. But I got no response,” she said.

As long as the remains of a missing person have not been identified, relatives do not receive any compensation from the Iraqi state. However, in many cases, the fathers, sons and brothers killed by IS were breadwinners.

To help families, Dalia al-Mamari created the Human Line association in Mosul, which provides advice on the compensation process. She regrets that “the government (is) very slow”. And, “often, he gives us the only answer: + your children are dead, may God have mercy on them +”, she sighs.

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