MAHAWEEL, Iraq—As a backhoe cut through mounds of earth outside the small Iraqi town of Mahaweel on Wednesday, it uncovered skulls, bones, rotting clothes and, perhaps, a chapter of Iraq's terrible past.
Human Rights Watch, an independent group headquartered in New York, is trying to chronicle what happened to these people. Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with the organization, is photographing the remains and interviewing families at the gravesite. His goal is to provide evidence of atrocities to bring those responsible to justice.
In the last week, the remains of 2,600 to 3,000 people have been unearthed, local officials said.
Many of those buried had Iraqi uniforms, wallets and military identification, Bouckaert said. Relatives have identified some remains as those of Iraqi Shiite Muslim soldiers who returned from the first Gulf War only to be arrested after a Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, he said. The men disappeared after their arrests.
At least a few of the skulls uncovered appear to contain bullet holes, Bouckaert said, but it will take a forensic examination to confirm that suspicion.
Bouckaert said there was no independent confirmation of the number of remains reported at the site, about 55 miles south of Baghdad. Some local officials have predicted that the number could rise to 14,000, equaling the number of Iraqis reportedly missing in the area.
Across Iraq, 200,000 people disappeared over two decades, according to Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately, most of those will probably turn up in mass graves," Bouckaert said.
At the burial site, workers have put each set of remains into a bundle, some covered in clear plastic, some with names. Scores of bundles could be seen Wednesday. Some families have claimed and removed remains.
Now that Saddam has fallen, the families of the missing seem to be in a hurry to learn the fates of their loved ones.
Bouckaert criticized the United States and coalition countries for not having forensic experts on site to collect and identify the remains, as in Kosovo, so evidence can be gained and prosecution made possible.
In a visit to the mass graves Wednesday, Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the former exile group the Iraqi National Congress, appealed to the coalition and the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to help bring in teams for evidence and data collection at the site, said Chalabi adviser Zaab Sethna.
U.S. Marines learned about the site only three days ago, said Marine Capt. David Romley. "We'll do whatever it takes" to help, he said. The Marines' position is that the Iraqis are in charge of the work, he said.
On Wednesday, thousands of people came to the dirt mounds, searching for identification papers or any recognizable clothing among the bones.
Nahda Jabaar Abed Muein was looking for her brothers, Ali and Haidar, who have been missing since 1991. They weren't carrying identification papers. But, she said, "We knew exactly which clothes they were wearing at that time."
Tears welled in her eyes as she stood among the lines of tattered clothes and bones. Thick black hair still covered some of the skulls.
Other relatives ringed a mass grave pit, watching every scoop of dirt brought up with the backhoe. A long bone stuck out of a load of dirt. One worker handed a skull to another.
Some in the crowd criticized the United States for not supporting the Shiite uprising. Several called for revenge against a local man they hold responsible for mass killings under Saddam.
"We want Americans to bring him here," a man said, "to execute him."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030514 USIRAQ grave