In Nitra, Iraq, Michael Trimble (left) and Greg Kehoe looked over a grave designated Ninawa 9. It held the bodies of 156 men, believed to have been executed by Saddam Husseins military. (Globe Staff Photo / Thanassis Cambanis)
In Iraq grave, evidence of regime's horrors
Page 2 of 3 -- Kehoe said Iraqi informants told investigators that thousands were executed here.
The remoteness that led this place to be chosen as a killing field is also why Kehoe chose it as the first site for exhumation. It is removed enough from the insurgent violence plaguing the country to make it safe for his team to work.
The executioners picked their location carefully, driving their victims to a dusty wadi about 2 miles from the nearest town, hidden from the road by a long, sloping, sandy ridge.
Sometime in late 1987 or early 1988, roughly 300 Kurdish women and children were brought to this dustbowl from their village in the verdant hills around Lake Dukan, as part of Hussein's Anfal campaign against the Kurds.
Here, they were systematically executed, shot with pistols in the back of the head or in the face before their bodies were bulldozed into a narrow pit.
Some of the women were pregnant. They appeared to be carrying all their belongings, some wearing as many as 11 layers of clothing.
In the morgue, investigators such as Jessica Mondero sort fetal bones, jewelry, and money from the corpses' clothing.
''We're finding lots of items contained in the clothing," Mondero said, cleaning a woman's blue dress with a toothbrush. ''Lots of children's clothing, medication, beads, money, change purses layered within the clothing."
The men buried in the nearby trench, about 156 of them, were probably brought to the killing field on a different day, investigators believe.
Michael K. ''Sonny" Trimble, the US Army Corps of Engineers archeologist supervising the excavation, said it is clear the men were executed in the bottom of the trench that became their grave.
''There's only two ways" to put victims in a mass grave, he said, standing at the bottom of the trench. ''Put them alive down here and shoot them, or you shoot them up on the edge and throw them in. I really believe from what I see here is that a lot of the people were already down here."
A broken tibia protruded from the top layer of bodies left in the men's grave. Many of the skulls still had hair, even though the flesh had melted away.
Until now, professional investigators have not worked on any untouched grave sites like this one.
Immediately after Hussein's government fell, people destroyed the value of many mass graves as courtroom evidence when they dug them up to reclaim relatives' bodies.
A nationwide insurgency has put much of the country off limits to Kehoe's single exhumation and forensic team; they can excavate only one grave at a time, and they can operate only in areas removed from rebel-controlled zones.
Hussein's government killed an estimated 300,000 people, most of them Shi'ite Muslims or ethnic Kurds, rights groups say. The Iraqi government has identified about 40 mass graves, but until now none has been scientifically exhumed -- in part because European forensic teams won't collect evidence that might be used to win death penalty convictions. Continued...