Commentary: Remembering Iraq's mass graves

As U.S. forces leave Iraq, let us not forget that one reason troops were sent there to kill and to die was to end 20 years of mass slaughter by Saddam Hussein’s forces, a mission that has been accomplished.

The dead are unable to give thanks, so it is a good moment to look back over what U.S. troops ended and to fervently hope that once American forces leave there is no resumption of mass murder.

Some 180,000 Kurds vanished into mass graves during this period, especially during Saddam’s 1988 Anfal campaign which even used poison gas to depopulate the Iraqi border region with Iran.

A young Kurdish man now living in the United States told me how he survived the mass slaughter of his village although his mother and siblings died before his eyes. I’ll use only his first name Taimor as he feared Saddam loyalists might still try to kill him.

His chilling words reminded me of what must have been the fate of my own grandparents, swept away from this earth by the Nazi holocaust in 1942 in Europe.

In the 1980s, as Iraq fought a war with Iran, reports began to reach the West of mass murder in Kurdish and Shiite regions of Iraq. The Kurds are a people without a land – they are minorities in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria and often their loyalty to those countries has been questioned.

Taimor told me he was 12 in 1988 when the Iraqi troops arrived in his village up in the mountains along the Iran border and took away everyone – men, women and the children. They were interned in an army base at Qoratu down on the plains, still in a majority Kurdish region.

Once the villages were emptied, huge bulldozers crushed the houses and mosques to assure that the Kurds would never return.

But the Iraqi forces had a further way to ensure Kurds would not return. Genocide.

Taimor told me that after a few weeks in the army camp, one day all the men were taken away in trucks and never seen again.

He and his family and the rest of the village people remained several more weeks before they too were loaded into closed trucks and hauled for many hours in stifling heat. Near the end of the journey, the soldiers gave water to the people but it appeared to contain some drug as many people became sleepy and passive.

When the trip ended, they all got down from the trucks and were made to stand on a berm of earth next to a row of holes in the desert. Then they were shot. In a scene that must have been repeated hundreds and hundreds of times to dispose of so many Kurds, all of Taimor’s relatives and villagers tumbled into the mass graves.

But Taimor survived. He was shot several times but not fatally. A village girl was also alive and they were at the bottom of a pile of bodies. Taimor told me he urged the girl to extract herself from the pile and try to escape. But she was too frightened.

So Taimor dragged himself out of the pit and hid as bulldozers shoveled earth over the now-full mass graves. He made his way at night away from that place and was found by Bedouins villagers who took him in and helped him to heal. After some months he was moved to Baghdad and then to the Kurdish region where his testimony was taken by Kurdish leaders and broadcast over their radio. Eventually he was sent to the United States where I was able to witness his meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Kurds were not the only ones to face mass murder. Shiites had long been repressed by Saddam who suspected they might be disloyal to his largely Sunni regime and possibly assist Shiite Iran. Many Shiites had been killed or simply disappeared since 1980, even including the top Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated in 1999.

Shiites rose up in open rebellion in 1991 after the United States and its allies defeated Saddam’s army and drove it out of Kuwait. Saddam’s fighter jets were grounded by U.S. imposed no-fly zones. But U.S. President George H.W. Bush mistakenly allowed Saddam to unleash helicopters which strafed and rocketed the Shiite strongholds.

He also dispatched the tanks that survived Kuwait, leaving the Shiites with no hope. Some Shiites were hung from tank gun barrels.

In the months and years that followed the crushing of the Shiite uprising, thousands of young men were taken from buses and cars in the south of Iraq and ended in mass graves too.

Iraq’s Shiite families were unable to openly mourn or to even seek information about what happened to their sons and husbands until American forces dashed across the border from Kuwait and ended Saddam’s rule. At that point thousands of houses in the Shiite region were at last able to display traditional black flags announcing the loss family members.

People also began to travel out to the mass grave sites. Dozens were identified within weeks. People were simply too terrified to go out to them while Saddam ruled.

Lacking all knowledge or tools for forensic recovery of the remains that might have been used in trials of Saddam-era officials, people simply went searching for their dead. Many corpses, now reduced to bones, still wore the clothing they had put on that day they disappeared. Others had identity cards, jewelry or other distinguishing marks.

Very little has been done to chronicle the mass murder of Saddam’s regime. Estimates range from 180,000 Kurds slain to 400,000 including Shiites. They were non-combatants --children, women and unarmed men – killed because of their ethnicity or religious sect or politics. The death toll is smaller only than the killing of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994; the deaths of one million Cambodians by Pol Pot in 1975-1979; and the murder of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.

We may argue for years about whether the United States did the right thing by invading Iraq in 2003. The George W. Bush Administration said it believed Saddam was working on weapons of mass destruction – which were never found. It also thought Saddam might harbor al Qaida terrorists plotting attacks on America. While little evidence of this was found, the U.S. occupation did ignite an al Qaida in Mesopotamia terrorist movement which remains an ongoing bloody legacy as U.S. forces pull out this month.

But U.S. forces also invaded to put an end to the genocide of Saddam Hussein. The mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shiites was a crime against humanity and the international community was justified in ending it, even through the use of force.

Had the occupying U.S. and allied troops focused only on ending genocide and securing the human rights of Iraq’s minorities, and left that country a few months after toppling Saddam, the compassionate and well-intentioned goal of the invasion might have been more clear in Western as well as Muslim minds.

But 4,500 Americans and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis died as the occupation dragged on in an effort to remake Iraq into a more Western-style democracy, and it’s far too soon to know if that effort will bear fruit.

So now, at the bitter end of this long war, it’s wise for Iraqis as well as Americans and other allies to remember that the one, unquestionable, absolute good that came from the Bush war was the closing forever of Iraq’s mass graves.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

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