Draped in the traditional jackets and robes of southern Iraq, the skeletons lie in a grim tableau at the bottom of the sandy ditch, their jaws open and blindfolds of tattered Arab scarves tied around their empty eye sockets.
“I believe they were shot here,” said Michael Trimble, head of the mass graves unit for the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) in Iraq.
“The AK-47 ejects its casing at a 45° angle,” he explained, and pointed to a profusion of little red flags fluttering in the wind at one end of the trench, marking where brass bullet casings had been found.
Kerry Grant, an Australian forensic archeologist who has been excavating the site’s 28 bodies for the past two weeks, added her own observations.
“Going by some of the damage to the skulls,” she said, pointing at a badly splintered specimen, “they may have gone around and shot them in the head as well”.
Somewhere in the desert south-west of Baghdad, one of the best-equipped forensic teams in the world is slowly piecing together evidence for the various atrocity cases against the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
They are doing it one mass grave at a time.
Guarded by dozens of private security guards, the 11-member team has been living deep in the desert for the past two weeks. They are working on their third major mass grave crime scene — this one dating from a 1991 Shi’ite uprising.
“We can do a much better job than any other mass graves programme I’ve heard of or ever been associated with,” said Trimble, a spare, tanned 30-year veteran of this kind of work from the United States.
“We have equipment that a lot of major law enforcement agencies in the States don’t even have.”
The bodies will eventually be taken to the hi-tech RCLO lab near the Baghdad airport. There the remains will be examined, analysed and preserved in an effort to reconstruct what happened here in the desert 15 years ago.
“Mostly we found it extremely sad,” said Grant from beside the grave site.
“It’s extremely important … to discover these people and report these people and get the information to the right people, and hopefully this won’t happen again.”
The story for most of Iraq’s Shi’ites is a familiar, if bitter, one. Following the successful United States-led Desert Storm operation to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991, the long-disaffected Iraqi Shi’ites of the south revolted.
Saddam’s elite Republic Guard regrouped, however, and once it was clear there would be no interference from coalition forces they exacted a terrible revenge on the Shi’ite rebels.
According to chief investigating judge Raed al-Juhi, who is building the cases against Saddam with the RCLO’s assistance, there is documented evidence of more than 100 000 deaths.
Unlike the enormous mass graves containing several hundred people that were found from the campaigns against the Kurds in the north, the graves in the south are smaller, more rushed affairs.
Soldiers would have grabbed a few dozen people at a time and taken them into the desert.
“What these people did … is they came down this road,” said Trimble, pointing at a map as he reconstructed the events. “They looked for wadis where they could throw people … put them down in the wadi and shoot down on them.”
Trimble calmly explained why the soft soil found in the wadis was perfect for their purpose.
“So what they did, is they do what all mass murderers do. They look for places where you can dig deeply, quickly, kill someone, cover ’em, and then leave.”
For Trimble and his team, the desert of the south is one huge crime scene. They survey it through a combination of satellite images and witness testimony in their search for suitable sites.
Of the hundreds of possible sites in just this one section of desert, the team has narrowed it down to 18 good possibilities.
“You get an intuition about them after a while,” he said, and these sites “had the best look to them, the best feel to them”.
Unlike many who work on mass graves, the RCLO mass graves team favours heavy machinery for the initial work, and a large backhoe is used to scrape away carefully at a possible site.
“If you’ve done this a while, and fortunately I’ve done this a while, you’ll see soil texture and color and everything else, and you’ll see that soil has been disturbed and you stop right on top of the grave,” said Trimble.
Wade Ricard is the man operating the backhoe. A 35-year-old native of Washington state in the US, he has worked with Trimble for years on these kinds of sites.
“He’ll watch as we get down close until we see pieces of clothes sticking out,” said Ricard. “You have to be very careful — you only get one shot at it.”
Hitting the bodies with the shovel would destroy the delicate crime scene, which is one reason why the bodies are not searched for identification until they are ready for the lab.
“My biggest pet peeve in mass grave work is people fooling around with the bodies,” said Trimble. “It is a crime scene, a large crime scene, so you have to treat it the way you would a crime scene in a major city.”
The team’s job here will soon have to end, as midday temperatures in early June reach 48°C, making further work on the many potential sites in the area impossible.
For now, the 28 bodies newly exposed to the sky will tell the rest of their awful story in the lab, and then one day in a courtroom.
“When you work with the remains for a long time you get very attached to them,” said Trimble. “You feel very badly for them.” – AFP