The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Wadis have loose sediment (13)

June 6, 2006

Last Saturday, I went to see a mass grave.

I have to say that ranked up there with one of the more disturbing experiences, if just for some its mundane details. We were flown out there by the Americans to some god forsaken spot in the middle of the desert early in the morning. When we arrived we were taken into a large air-conditioned tent, rather like half a cylinder with a long table inside and a fridge full of cold water and this lean spare man, "Sonny" proceeded to give us a briefing on... well how people kill other people.

Iraq you see, is underlain by a stratum of gypsum, a hard chalky substance that makes digging difficult. As a result, if you need to bury someone quickly, you need to find a place where the soil is loose.

"All humans operate on a least effort system, especially murderers," he said and then proceeded to explain in fairly complicated geologic terms how sediment builds up in desert wadis (dry riverbeds) making them ideal places to dig graves.

Sonny has been doing this work for 30 years, he's done mass graves in Kosovo, searched for American MIA remains in Cambodia and Vietnam, helped excavate an African American slave burial ground in Manhattan just a few years ago. He's weirdly familiar with the mechanics of mass murder.

Deeper wadis also provide two high walls to contain people in while you stand above and open fire. The trenches are dug with a front loader. One end of the trench is usually deeper than the other because of the mechanism of the shovel...

The string of meaningless details flowed over us as the guy from the New York Times and I took notes.

And then they took us to the site itself and suddenly we all fell silent because it so much more awful than we expected. I had thought bones, I had thought a clinical sort of exercise, I thought excavations.

What I saw was a figure in a blue dish dash arched its back, its skeletal jaw open to the sky with hands tied behind its back and a blindfold across the eye sockets. And there were more, 28 to be precise. The details jumped out, a watch, a sandal, a cheap plastic shoe, the remnant of a sweater beneath a dish dash, and everywhere skulls with blindfolds.

It seemed almost ludicrous, like someone had dressed them up in some strange Day of the Dead parody-skeletons shouldn't have clothes, skeletons don't need blindfolds, they don't have eyes!

I was there with a guy from the NYT and a Reuters photographer, afterwards, separately we murmured to each other, "have you seen something like this before?" each assuming the other had somehow experienced it before - after all Iraq was a good spot for them. None of us had.

And so we asked questions and the answers weren't much fun. Were they killed here? And the answers came with the technical detail that only a forensic archeologist can provide.

"The AK-47 ejects its cartridges at a 45 degree angle forward and judging by the 80 some cartridges gathered here," he pointed to a collection of little red flags fluttering in the breeze, "the shooter would have stood here as he fired. Notice how the bodies fell in that direction."

Kerry Grant, an Australian archeologist who did the excavation on this site, added "we think by the state of many of the skulls" she pointed at a particularly splintered specimen "they went around and shot people in the head afterwards."

In 1991, The US-led coalition in Desert Storm smashed the Iraqi army and drove it out of Kuwait. The Shiites in the south revolted and rapidly took control of most of the south, the US, fearing Iranian influence, did not come to their aid.

The Iraqi army regrouped and went after the Shiites with a vengeance. Some 100,000, if not more were killed. But as Sonny explained, these were not the well planned mass graves of the campaigns against the Kurds in the 1980s, which he also excavated.

The Kurds, men, women, children, were shipped off in a very well planned, methodical campaign where whole villages were put on a bus, taken to a site, killed and dumped into mass graves holding hundreds.

For the Shiites it was a fast, haphazard affair of a few dozen at a time, taken out into the desert, killed, buried, before the next group was brought along.

We went to a second site, more what I would have expected, where the bodies had just been shot dead in a ravine that periodically ran with water so that it was just shreds of clothes and bits of bone scattered along the bottom.

The floor of the wadi was filled with the same gaily colored flags fluttering in the breeze marking the locations of clothes, bits of bone, cartridge casings and spent bullets.

Mike Smith, an American, was running this site, and he enthusiastically explained the contour mapping they'd done on the site to know exactly how the remains were being carried away by the water.

Mike is also an archeologist and worked once at Harappa, the 3000 BC ruins in the Indus River Valley civilization in Pakistan. Wouldn't you rather be doing that instead? He admitted that flying above Iraq, he'd look down and think, gee that's Babylon and no one's done any excavation here since the 1980s.

Maybe some other time.

Sonny guessed there were 10-12 bodies from this site, but they won't know until they take everything to lab in Baghdad, where they have an expert at "co-mingled" bodies separate everything out.

Sonny says this is the best equipped mass graves operation he's ever seen. The 11 member team lives in a camp guarded by an 80 member security team, with another dozen people doing food, maintenance, etc...

There's a high tech lab in Baghdad analyzing everything, figuring out the ballistics and angle of the bullet all in preparation for the court case, when Saddam is tried for the 1991 uprising. Though that case has to wait until the current one for the 1982 massacre of 150 Shiites in Dujail to finish, after which he will be tried for the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, just to name a few of the other numerous cases the US-assisted court has planned.

The US is underwriting one of the most sophisticated crime analysis labs in the world to prepare half a dozen cases against Saddam.

Now think on this. The day after I came back, they found 20 corpses in various spots around Baghdad, that's roughly the number of bodies in the first site I saw. The next day 10 bodies were found in Baghdad, including four floating in the Tigris, that's the number of bodies in the second site.

That's not even counting the 30-50 people dying daily in the violence.

There is the equivalent of a new mass grave dying in Iraq every day.