Families discover Hussein's murder by numbers
ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ
The tears now falling in the Abu Ghraib cemetery can't be counted. But the graves can be: 993 of them, victims of Saddam Hussein, marked only by yellow and black metal plates with crudely-painted numbers.Skip to next paragraph
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These were forgotten victims, most of them Shiite Muslims that their families say "prayed too much" or who opposed the regime, tucked behind a high wall a mile away from Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
They were forgotten, that is, until the American war against Mr. Hussein unearthed state-sanctioned murder and linked the anonymous numbers with the names of those buried here.
Now families are digging up the remains for reburial, and finding for the first time the physical evidence of Hussein's regime. Among the field of markers, number 659 was just another pile of earth, until the al-Atabi family arrived to claim their father, Fadil Sadoun.
"Come back, come back to your family, to your children!" pleads Fadil's daughter, Rabab, at the center of a clutch of women clad in long jet-black gowns who slap their faces in grief. "He's an unimportant man, with children. Why did you kill him?" she wails at her ousted president.
The US fought this war for strategic reasons: to destroy any of Iraq's remaining weapons of mass destruction, to advance US security interests in a post-Sept. 11 world, even--at least in the minds of many Iraqis--to control Mideast oil.
But on the ground in Iraq, tha fall of Hussein is yielding an overwhelming human story of great loss. Families have become gravediggers, sifting through dirt with their fingers to recover every bone and scrap of cloth of Saddam Hussein's legacy.
While these scenes may bring closure to families, they are painful nonetheless. And the families are only now starting to flock to this site.
"Be quiet. Slowly, slowly, that's it," says Fadil Sadoun's cousin Hassan Sadran Hussein, as he directs men with tattooed hands and heavy-stoned silver Shiite rings on their fingers, as they feel through the dirt three feet down in the grave.
"Search well, don't leave anything," Hassan says, when more of the skeleton is revealed, and more dirt clawed away with a shovel. "Take your time."
Bones pile up on a graveside blanket, making the sound of dry wood clattering together when more bones are added.
Fadil Sadoun was first taken by security police in 1991, and held at Abu Ghraib prison for two years. When the overtly religious man was arrested again in 1996, he didn't come home. Instead, he was executed in 1997, given a number, and buried.
The loss seems unbearable for son Mustapha, who weeps uncontrollably a few feet away, his tears staining his pale blue shirt. Other family members try to comfort him, and finally have to carry him away, to the van that brought a wood coffin to collect the patricarch's remains.
"Oh my father, my father!" Mustapha chants with a broken voice. "You should be happy-Saddam is gone."
As dawn turns into a hot, blindingly bright and windy morning, more families arrive with scraps of paper scrawled with numbers, and with rudimentary coffins in tow. They walk purposefully along the rows of graves, scanning the markers as if searching for a familiar face in a crowd.
Beneath their feet are the morbid secrets that will define the toppled regime. Bureaucratic efficiency was masterful here. Numbers of graves are finally being matched to names of missing political prisoners by custodians of the cemeteries, who can finally speak out.
The executioners may be gone, but the cruel pain they inflicted endures.
"These are the victims of the crimes of Saddam Hussein," says Mohamed Hussein, who dropped upon grave number 288-of his brother, Ali Hussein-when he found it. He clenched the dirt in his fists, broke down, and leaned for support on a coffin that had clearly been used before.