SHINAN VILLAGE, Iraq—For three days, they dug into the cracked earth, searching for seven sons lost long ago to the Saddam Hussein regime. On Saturday, they found three crumbling skeletons tossed into shallow pits like discarded trash.
Alwash Hayal, 38, recognized his brother Salah Hayal Thaier from his clothing. He immediately began to restore the dignity of a 20-year-old Shiite foe of Saddam's regime last seen more than four years ago.
"I felt so proud of his actions," said Alwash Hayal, after retrieving his brother's remains and carefully placing it in a wooden casket. "He did what his heart told him to."
All around Iraq, family members are searching for the remains of relatives executed by the Saddam regime. In cemeteries, torture chambers, police stations.
The hunt is endless—and often futile. The regime buried its victims in unmarked graves or in numbered ones and hid away the lists. Or it simply tossed bodies in mass graves, say human rights groups.
In this village about 20 miles outside of Basra, members of the Meyah tribe were fortunate enough to have a witness. An Iraqi soldier living here had seen where the bodies had been dumped in a sun-scorched field across the highway from a local military base.
The seven men had been executed for their roles in a two-day uprising that began on March 17, 1999. The revolt followed the assassination of their revered spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al Sadr who publicly defied the regime.
But while they knew where the graves were, the tribe was handcuffed with fear. Saddam's agents had destroyed the homes of the families of the executed men.
So the families held symbolic funerals—and waited for the right moment to retrieve the bodies.
That moment came three days ago. The road to the Shiite holy city of Najaf had finally been cleared for safe travel. The families wanted to bury their men there in a revered cemetery, where Shiite heroes over the centuries rest.
First, they had to find the bodies. It wasn't easy. The airfield was the size of ten football fields. Memories were fuzzy. It took three days of digging here, clawing there, until bones emerged in the dirt on Saturday.
The tribe sent word to Sheikh Adnan al Selawi, a senior Shiite Muslim cleric in Basra. He drove out, along with other clerics, to pay their respects.
As Selawi looked on, the men of the Hayal family put Salah Hayal's jawbone back into his cracked skull and picked up his remains.
"There is no God but Allah," they chanted as they carried the remains out to the bed of a pick-up truck and, ultimately, proper burial.
Around them, women dressed in black Islamic garments wailed and beat their chests.
"I wish I had died instead of you," they cried.
"I'm sorry you didn't live to grow old."
On Sunday, the men will be buried again—this time with dignity.
"We'll wash the body, rub it, cover it with cloth, and put in a casket," said Lafta Hassan, referring to the remains of his nephew Abid Ali Anbar, 20 when executed. "Then we'll send it to Najaf."
A fourth body has been found, and will be dug up on Sunday, villagers said. As for the rest, "We will keep on digging until we find them," said Hassan.
Once the remains were gone, the Meyah tribe marched and waved a red tribal flag. They shot their Kalashnikov rifles in the air in a show of sorrow, respect and pride for the men who defied Saddam.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-REMAINS