WASHINGTON, March 12 (UPI) -- Allied forces driving toward Berlin at the end of World War II discovered the Nazi death camps that contained the corpses and barely living remains of Jews and other enemies of national socialism. When the scale of brutality and murder carefully was laid bare, filmed and documented, a deeply shocked world promised, "Never again!"
But within only a few years the Chinese communists killed millions of "small landlords." In the 1970s, Pol Pot succeeded in killing two-thirds of the Cambodian population. Countless dead filled the countryside of the former Yugoslavia, and in 1994 militant Hutus killed as many as a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates within only three months, supposedly protected by the French government -- which, in fact, withdrew its troops -- and ignored by the United States and the United Nations.
Now another pandemic of mass killings is being documented, recorded and widely ignored. This time the perpetrator is Saddam Hussein, whose Baathist Party was said to be based on that of the Nazis, and accounts of its killing efficiency continue to flow to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The U.S. Agency for International Development reports that since Saddam was ousted, 270 sites of mass graves have been reported. These contain an unknown number of Iraqis, Iranian prisoners of war, Iraqi Kurds and Kuwaiti prisoners among the long list of those Saddam tortured and killed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts the remains in mass graves at 400,000 so far.
When representatives from USAID, the U.S. Army and a host of human-rights organizations are able fully to begin investigations in force, the nature of the crimes against the Iraqi people will be seen in full. It is a massive undertaking.
Melissa Connor, an archaeological consultant to Physicians for Human Rights, which lends its support and expertise to investigations of crimes against humanity, has worked as a forensic archaeologist in the mass-graves investigations in Bosnia and Rwanda. Connor explains what investigators must do to uncover the bodies of Saddam's victims. She says that such graves are found by analyzing satellite and aerial photos that show disturbed ground or by interviewing witnesses to the killings. USAID indicated in its report on mass graves in Iraq that in some cases executioners have come forward to help find the killing grounds. Sometimes, Connor adds, the bodies are not fully buried and so quite easily found.
Once a mass grave is identified, Connor stresses, there is prework that must be accomplished before shovel is put to ground. A decision must be made as to the goal of the exhumation. Will it be uncovered to return the remains of loved ones to families? Or for advocacy reasons or to help prosecute the guilty? According to USAID, all of these are goals in Iraq.
Once such questions are answered, Connor says, the size of the grave must be determined. She says investigators do this by using imaging technologies or by digging a trench to determine the depth and configuration of the burial. According to the USAID report, "Some graves hold a few dozen bodies -- their arms lashed together and the bullet holes in the backs of skulls testimony to their execution. Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies."
Connor points out that everything must be documented in detail for the purposes of evidence, especially if a war-crimes indictment is anticipated. If the remains are skeletal, Connor says, the examination will be anthropological in nature, but if they are "fleshed" there might be an autopsy. During this stage of investigation the cause of death is found. Connor comments that when the victim has been killed with a high-caliber machine gun it is quite obvious because bones are completely shattered. Spraying civilians with machine-gun fire was a method used by Saddam's forces -- but more on that later.
Once all the evidence is collected, families can begin to identify remains and take their loved ones home for proper burial, according to their custom, says Connor. Identification occurs much the same way as the finding of the graves. Eyewitness accounts of who was where and when are helpful, says Connor. Clothing, artifacts such as watches or cigarettes, and sometimes even identification cards also help to connect the disappeared with their families. Connor comments that in these situations families of the dead are "sharing with you one of the defining moments in their lives." And the job is enormous. According to Connor, "In Iraq it's going to be an overwhelming process" because the remains in these mass graves are not only those of Iraqis but also of Iranians and Kuwaitis.
William Haglund, a forensic anthropologist and director of the international forensic program for PHR, is not optimistic about families finding their loved ones. He has toured Iraq to assess the capacity for handling investigation of the mass graves. He says many of the bodies are so decomposed that there are no fingerprints and warns that there are few dental records in Iraq. This makes DNA analysis the best way to identify the bodies, but Iraq has no capacity to do such work, according to Haglund. He sees a long road to finding closure.
"The scope of the problem is immense. ... (There are) an estimated 300,000 missing people," says Haglund. "Easily, this is a 50-year job."
In addition to the challenges of the investigation, USAID says in its report, many of Saddam's supporters and those who carried out the killings have threatened the organizations attempting to investigate. But despite the threats and dangers, USAID insists, whenever a mass grave is discovered a team of 20 to 30 experts will be housed on-site for up to six weeks for a thorough inquiry.
The investigators will expose the true nature of what these disappeared Iraqis experienced in their last days. For instance, many of those killed in the north of Iraq in 1988 were subjected to nerve and mustard gas. Haglund investigated the aftermath of the gassings and explains the way the Iraqi Kurds died. Once the gas is ingested there is "difficulty breathing, burns on the skin ... an agonizing way to die," he says.
Margaret Samuels, a social worker by training and clinical coordinator at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, helped as a psychosocial worker in Bosnia, Kosovo and now, Iraq, counseling families of the victims of mass murder. To help families who still hold out hope that their loved ones are alive, Samuels attempts to prepare them for the horror when they visit the graves or when identifying a loved one. She tries to convey that they will be looking at bones with remnants of clothing. If fleshed, the bodies will have the stench of death and sometimes be bloated or mutilated. She says she also attempts to keep the children of these families occupied so they are not exposed to the gruesome display.
In her line of work, Samuels hears the firsthand accounts of families still caught in the pain of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. She describes seeing a list of prisoners posted on the walls of one of Saddam's prisons, in front of which throngs of Iraqis looked for the names of the missing. She also met with former prisoners who told her of their time in Saddam's prisons. One man in particular broke down in tears as he described the emotional and physical torture he survived. Samuels says many of the reports of torture she heard involved beatings, electrocutions and such mutilation as cutting off hands or surgically removing the ears of army deserters.
There was no end to the gruesome creativity of Saddam's secret police. Saddam's methods included using hammers to break bones, ripping out fingernails, amputating limbs with a chain saw, crucifixion, throwing live victims in acid baths and ovens, cutting loose wild dogs to attack victims, raping women in the presence of their children and husbands, cutting off a penis or a breast, and stripping children naked and forcing their parents to watch as they were stung by hornets and scorpions. The graves contain evidence of these and other sadistic crimes.
Some of Saddam's victims escaped to tell their tales on the day his statue was torn down in Baghdad. The USAID report contains three survivor accounts from mass executions outside Mahawil in the south of Iraq. The survivors all describe being taken into custody without a reason being given. They describe seeing women and children also in custody, all of them haphazardly blindfolded.
Once they were herded into holding areas they could see a pile of tires set on fire and were ordered to run past these. Some of the women, children and elderly men were tripped or fell near the fire and were unceremoniously beaten to death with pipes or thrown into the blazing tires to burn alive. All of the survivors who escaped their would-be executioners had been shot and partially buried, crawling away to their homes under cover of dark and living thereafter in hiding.
The experience can be overwhelming for both families of victims and investigators of these crimes, Samuels says. It is "almost impossible to move on until some of these things are processed," she says, and almost the whole of Iraq is being affected by the ongoing uncovering of Saddam's atrocities.
Jim Prince is president of the Democracy Council, which promotes democratic institutions in the developing world, and has worked in Iraq. He tells of his experiences at the mass graves of Iraq, describing the scenes of chaos and pain as families uncovered the dead. "It was horrible," Prince says. "Right after the uprising in northern Iraq a lot of relatives who heard about the mass graves ... would go (to the sites) and start digging with their hands and become a mess. You'd have bones and clothing everywhere and people screaming." Prince continued, "The first time I went it was very windy and we were getting people's hair in our mouths and eyes. In the open fields, they were just pawing at the earth to try and match up bones and pictures. ... It's not something that leaves you quickly."
Prince also visited the torture chambers with victims, and remembers: "To me it became intensely personal. I was looking at somebody that experienced this." He says it changed his mind about the war in Iraq. Prior to seeing Saddam's legacy of brutality firsthand, he thought a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis had been possible, but after seeing the evidence he had a change of heart. He describes why:
"You come away from these fields and torture chambers -- the senselessness of it -- having seen pure evil and knowing that to do nothing in the face of such evil is to perpetuate it. It's not a question of weapons of mass destruction, it's a question of evil, and if you let it continue, you have to take responsibility for what's happening. You can't just turn a blind eye."
(John Powers is a writer for Insight magazine.)