Rows of fresh graves in Kuwaiti cemetery bear silent witness to Iraqi atrocities WAR IN THE GULF

March 04, 1991|By Larry Copeland | Larry Copeland,Knight-Ridder News Service

KUWAIT CITY -- At the Rigga Cemetery 18 miles south of Kuwait City, the narrow mounds of dull gray dirt stretch solemnly toward a row of wind-swept evergreens. In the background, four thick plumes of burning oil darken the azure morning sky.

This is Saddam Hussein's legacy to Kuwait, the resting place for many victims of his ruthless seven-month rule of this tiny country.

But these are not the graves of faceless victims.

Shakir Mohammed saw to that.

For months the cemetery caretaker kept a Polaroid camera hidden in a light fixture. As each new battered body was delivered through his gates, Mr. Mohammed slipped out his camera and took a picture.

Yesterday, he brought out a weathered folder filled with the gruesome evidence -- pictures of mangled bodies, of jaws ripped askew, of faces beaten until hardly human, of heads split open and caved in.

These were the victims of President Hussein's secret police, delivered to Rigga Cemetery from nearby Al-Adaan Hospital after doctors could not repair work done in torture chambers.

Mr. Mohammed stood amid the rows of simple graves yesterday, pointing first to ones that occupied one-third of the cemetery.

"From here back," he said, "is before August 10."

He turned and made a sweeping gesture with his right hand, taking in the rest of the cemetery.

"From here to the trees," he said, "these are people who were brought here since August 10."

Since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion, Mr. Mohammed said, he has buried 2,750 people. Only 400 of them died of natural causes, he said. And, he is quick to point out, Rigga is one of many cemeteries in Kuwait.

Every fresh mound in Rigga tells a story.

Mr. Mohammed tells those stories in calm, reasonable tones as he walks among the graves.

Here, near the front of a section reserved for children, is a mass grave 23 paces long. It contains the remains of 37 babies, including infants who died at Al-Adaan Hospital after their incubators were disconnected, Mr. Mohammed said.

Most of the tiny bodies, now covered by a foot-high mound of fine, gray dirt, were brought to him Sept. 4 and 5, he said. "Many of them had been left in the hospital for about a month," he said. "And when they came here, they came rotten. They stayed in the freezer at the hospital for over a month."

Mr. Mohammed said he also had buried more than 50 children since Aug. 10.

A few steps away, there is a shorter mass grave, covered by freshly turned, tan dirt. It is the grave of six children who were crushed by Iraqi tanks and trucks last week as the Iraqis rushed to flee Kuwait, he said.

Although accounts of alleged Iraqi atrocities slipped out of occupied Kuwait, there is no independent confirmation of the stories or of those told by Mr. Mohammed. Short of exhumation, the world may never know for sure what is contained in the shallow trenches here.

The minister of state for Cabinet affairs says 25,000 Kuwaitis were killed, were detained or simply disappeared from Aug. 2 to Feb. 20. An additional 8,000 were kidnapped from Feb. 21 to 23 as the fleeing Iraqi soldiers tried to bolster their flimsy bargaining position, according to the minister, Abdul Rahman al-Awadi. He said the estimates were conservative.

The toll on Mr. Mohammed of the gruesome work of burying these victims is apparent. Although he is 29, his face is deeply lined and his hair is gray. He looks like a 50-year-old.

But Mr. Mohammed -- an Interior Ministry employee who took over at the cemetery after the regular caretaker left last year -- BTC draws hope from one grave at Rigga.

It is the cemetery's largest grave, a huge trench 10 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 60 yards long. And it is -- mercifully -- empty.

It was dug for Kuwaiti soldiers who were expected to be killed in the ground war.

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