In rush for closure, Iraqis destroy evidence of mass murders

Foreign experts are starting to help with investigation of mass graves.

Ghania Mahdi Matar opens each bundle ever-so-slightly, as though browsing. But she knows exactly what she's looking for: gray pants, a gray shirt with two red stripes across it, a green jacket, white sneakers. Only a mother would remember in such detail what her son was wearing when he disappeared during the Shiite uprising here at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

She is one of countless Iraqis searching remains unearthed from mass graves where apparent victims of Saddam Hussein's brutal putdown were dumped. Up to 290,000 Iraqis have gone "missing" in the past two decades, according to recent estimates, and many of them are now turning up in unmarked burial sites. But many of those graves are being dug up roughshod by Iraqis desperate to discover the fate of loved ones, causing the loss of crucial forensic evidence for any war-crimes tribunal or truth commission, Human Rights Watch charged in a 14-page report released Thursday.

The New York-based rights group blames coalition forces for failing to secure sites that the US, as an occupying power, is obligated to protect. The report also charges that the US-appointed Organization of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance has not presented a plan to collect evidence from grave sites - essential to documenting mass executions said to have been carried out by Mr. Hussein's officers.

At the village of Al Mahawil, where two of the largest mass graves in Iraq were discovered two weeks ago near an Iraqi military base, Human Rights Watch says about half of the bodies may have been rendered unidentifiable. "These burial pits were unearthed in such a chaotic manner, it's going to be virtually impossible to identify many of the remains," Peter Bouckaert, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated in the report. "The United States should do much more to secure mass grave sites and help local community leaders set up a proper exhumation process."

So far, despite calls from human-rights groups and war-crimes experts, Iraqis have essentially been left to take the matter into their own hands.

For weeks, they have been showing up at suspected mass grave sites and digging through the remains with hoes and shovels, often separating human remains amid the emotional chaos.

This week, for the first time, international forensics experts are arriving in Iraq to oversee exhumations, to gather evidence, and to assist Iraqis in learning how to best document the evidence. William Haglund, a war- crimes specialist and director of the forensics experts with Physicians for Human Rights, was due to arrive in Iraq Saturday to begin assessments and open the door to formal investigations.

Iraqis with missing family members may not see the point in patience. Here at Musayeb, where the remains of hundreds of people who went missing in Hilla are displayed in the town youth center, families drive from hours away to search through rows of skeletons, clothing and effects, each wrapped in white encasings.

On a bulletin board nearby, entries are specific: "No. 397: Red shirt, sand-colored belt, has a union card, cigarette holder, house key."

One man, sure he had found the remains of his older brother on the basis of recognizing his clothes, bore a thin wooden coffin on his shoulders. He and other family members set it atop a beat-up white sedan to be transported for burial.

"We want to see the people who did this go to court and be punished, because we know they're still out there," says Amjad Hamid Abbas, who says his uncle's remains were found here about a week ago.

Another man, who had also located relatives here, says he comes looking each day for his brother: "If I find him, I can be comforted and know he is dead. I want to bury him myself," he says.

Although the rush to exhume the graves has caused damage to critical evidence, the desire for closure is equally pressing. Mrs. Matar, like many here, always thought her son was just in jail and would be released some day. She regularly went to the Interior Ministry and to the regime's infamous Abu Ghraib prison to protest and beg for his release.

"We had to have that hope. We hoped until the end of the war that the prisons would open and he would be there," says Matar, whose troubled, worn face is framed in a sea of black cloth. She also lost a daughter and grandchild during the bombing of Iraq in the war to bring down the regime.

Most of the people who come here are men, but Matar makes the two-hour drive here daily with her son-in-law. "I have to come, because only I know his clothing," she says. "If I found him, I would be satisfied. At least I could visit his grave."

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