THE Kurds, freed for now from Saddam Hussein's grip in northern Iraq, have uncovered mass graves, torture cells, videotapes, photographs, and piles of police reports that document numerous Iraqi atrocities.
The gruesome discoveries were seized from Iraqi secret police buildings in northern Iraq after the withdrawal of Iraqi troops and the establishment of a coalition security zone last spring north of the country's 36th parallel. And they add credence to Kurdish charges that the Iraqi authorities have killed thousands of Kurds over the last decade.
More than 4,000 Kurdish villages have been forcibly evacuated and destroyed by the Iraqis since 1976, and about 180,000 people have disappeared, Kurdish leaders say.
"We discovered what we always told the world about, but they didn't believe us," says Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Mass graves uncovered
Kurdish officials have uncovered numerous mass graves across northern Iraq. In Kurdish-controlled Sulaymaniyah, about 200 bodies have been found in the last five months. Fifty victims of a chemical gas attack were found stuffed in white cloth bags in the village of Goptapa.
Another mass grave was excavated late last year near a former Iraqi military camp called Sardow, near Sulaymaniyah.
"They were shot and hidden under a street. They paved the road over them," explains Jamal Aziz Amen, a soft-spoken headmaster of a boy's school, who is also a PUK leader in Sulaymaniyah.
On Kalowa Hill, overlooking the city of Sulaymaniyah, workers drove shovels into the dry, coffee-colored earth early last month. Groups of women, many covered in swaths of black cloth and clutching photos of missing relatives, watched impassively.
The mass grave located next to what used to be an Iraqi prison is believed to hold dozens of bodies.
Pershan Hassan sat amid the crowd on a mound of brown dirt beside a skeleton. Lying in the earth was her son's identification card and a few spent bullets. Shafik was 13 in 1988 when he was whisked away by Iraqi police from a school yard and never heard from again.
"You tried to bring freedom to your country," she cried, kissing the bits of cloth. "Because of that you are dead."
Those who lived around the detention center say they frequently heard screams and volleys of gunfire. Iraqi guards warned those living near the center that if they peeped over the high wall they would be shot.
"We once stood on the roof to see what was happening and they shot at us," says 18-year-old Mustafa Galal.
Photographs taken from police files show murdered Kurds with their hands tied behind their back to long poles set in concrete. Five concrete-filled tires, flanked on three sides by mounds of earth, are all that remain of the site on Kalowa Hill where dozens of Kurdish dissidents were shot.
Kurdish leaders have also obtained videotapes and documents from the former Iraqi secret police files that chronicle executions and torture.
"When I saw the video, the first thing I thought of was my brother," says Aras Muhammad Garib, a PUK official who is in charge of documenting Iraqi atrocities against the Kurds.
"The Iraqis told the people in Sulaymaniyah market that they had to watch the execution of my brother and eight other people in 1985," he says. Numerous executions
Police documents attest to numerous executions, often for trivial forms of protest. One man was put to death because he carried a picture of a Kurdish fighter in his wallet, another for possessing political leaflets. A whole family was killed because one of its members belonged to a guerrilla group.
Mr. Amen, the PUK official, spent a year at the security prison in Sulaymaniyah. The prison was attacked by the Kurds in April last year, and the 300 Iraqi defenders, including the governor, spent three days barricaded inside until they were all killed.
As he walked through the gutted remains of the building, Amen says that he had trouble coming back.
"They used to handcuff me behind my back and make me stand on a table," he says, as he pointed to three hooks hanging from the ceiling in one of the prison's sound-proofed torture chambers. "Then they hung the handcuffs on one of the hooks. They pushed away the table and I began swinging in the air."
Amen says he was beaten and given electric shocks as he hung from the ceiling until he lost consciousness.
He lived in a tiny cell with 15 people and was fed a diet of thin soup and tea and forbidden to speak. His family knew nothing of his fate and he was not allowed contact with the outside world.
When he was released, gaunt and weak, he appeared at his family home still dressed in his prison pajamas. Messages in a prison
Many prisoners wrote their names, crudely drawn calendars, and short messages on the prison walls.
"Oh Mother. In this dark room my dreams trouble me and I shake," one prisoner wrote. "Then comes the kicking against my door and a voice telling me to get up. It is time for my interrogation. I awake to the unconscious."
The messages are all that remain of many of those who were held in the prison. Many were driven away in vans late at night and never heard from again.
"They were my friends," Amen says, as his finger brushed over five names scratched on the wall of one cell. "They were executed."