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Boy who escaped from mass grave in Iraq tells his story

MAHAWEEL, Iraq—Over a month's span 12 years ago, Iraqi soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein took busloads of men, women and children—blindfolded and bound—down a dusty road outside the small town of Mahaweel. The soldiers pushed the people, possibly up to 3,000 of them, into trenches. They shot them and shoved dirt over their bodies.

But one, a 12-year-old boy named Nasser, survived. The bullets missed him—twice—and he managed to crawl to a shallow end of the mass grave, where he bit through the rags that bound him.

On Friday, this apparent lone survivor gave his firsthand account to an interpreter for the New York-based humanitarian group Human Rights Watch.

Nasser's story provides "a very powerful piece of evidence" in the effort to prosecute Iraqis who committed atrocities, said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. He has been photographing the site and interviewing the families of the people who died there.

Bouckaert declined to give Nasser's full name, to protect his identity. He said Nasser was willing to testify at any hearings or criminal proceedings involving mass killings and burials.

Nasser wasn't available for comment after sharing his story with the interpreter. But Bouckaert shared transcripts from the interview.

The details of Nasser's story match scores of accounts by relatives of the dead and by farmers who saw the shooting and bludgeoning that occurred daily in the secluded field from early March to early April 1991, Bouckaert said.

Today, Nasser lives in a poor area of Hillah, about an hour's drive south of Baghdad.

Around March 16, 1991, in the town of al Sada, he, his mother, his 13-year-old cousin and his 13-year-old uncle were walking to his grandfather's house.

It was a dangerous time, after a Shiite Muslim uprising against Saddam. His soldiers arrested anyone who looked the least bit suspicious. Nasser and his family were Shiites. A soldier stopped the four and accused them of looting. They denied the charge.

They were taken to a school classroom filled with others who had been arrested. Then soldiers moved them to a Mahaweel military base. The soldiers blindfolded them and bound their hands with strips from a blanket, but Nasser could still see.

Their captors herded them onto three buses, with up to 50 people crowded into each bus.

After the buses stopped on a dusty road, he heard shooting and people shouting the Shahada, a declaration of religious faith.

He told the interpreter that he remembers his mother telling him "to repeat the Shahada because we are going to die. . . . I heard the shouting of the children."

He and his mother grabbed each other's hands.

"They pulled at us.

"They threw us in a dug-out grave, and they started shooting at us.

"When I fell down into the hole, there were so many bodies underneath."

He remembers someone shouting, "That guy isn't dead. Shoot him again."

"They shot at me again, but I still was not shot."

He crawled to the edge of the pit and positioned himself against bamboo, where he could breathe. After he heard the vehicles drive away, he crawled from the grave and escaped.

A farmer from the area, whom Human Rights Watch also interviewed Friday, told the group that he hid near the site in 1991 and saw soldiers executing people at pits dug by a bulldozer. The soldiers would kill three groups of people a day, with up to 150 people in each group.

Another farmer told the group he sometimes saw soldiers bludgeon people in the holes. "They had no mercy," he told the translator.

Until the most recent war ended, the farmers were afraid to come forward. It was they who helped lead local officials to the graves, Bouckaert said.

The remains of Nasser's relatives haven't been recovered.

Based on interviews and research, Human Rights Watch believes that at least 200,000 people disappeared over two decades of Saddam's rule.

"There's many more, larger mass graves out there," Bouckaert said, "still waiting to be uncovered."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.