No longer numbers, Hussein's victims now mourned

Slowly unearthing coffins with their hands, relatives find closure, dashed hope

Postwar Iraq

April 27, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The woman, 72 years old, sat in the dirt, next to the coffin-shaped hole about 4 feet deep where two young boys were hunched over, digging with their hands. Dressed head to toe in black, she rocked slightly forward, then slightly backward, over and over as if keeping time with each scoop of dirt the boys pulled away.

For seven years this woman, Nuziha Jassam Omran, has been looking for her son Niema. She looked in hospitals, looked in prisons and prayed. Maybe she would find him in this hole in the desert, grave No. 142.

About 60 yards away, a man in a black robe was squatting over a plywood coffin, sobbing loudly, rubbing the rough wood with a rough hand. He had been looking for his younger brother for three years. He had just found him, in grave No. 945. Murtada Abduljabbar Al-Khafaji, wrapped in old and frayed and muddied burlap, was raised from the dirt and placed into the coffin, unrecognizable as a man except for his protruding feet and the roundness of his skull and those mournful cries of his brother.

The digging would continue for 10 other family members.

On this field of dust near the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and at the site of two other mass graves, maybe more, dozens of similar scenes were occurring yesterday over found bodies and lost hope as family members discovered, at last with some certainty, that their loved ones were indeed executed by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The dead in these places were snatched by Hussein's secret police, who in most cases never notified their families. So for years, in some cases decades, the families walking these graveyards yesterday with shovels over their shoulders, who dug gently just so far with the spade, then more delicately with their fingers, had not known what happened to their loved ones. They began finding out last week, when concerned residents managed to get their hands on the files of Hussein's fallen government and to spread the news about the secrets pressed within those files.

Al-Khafaji was executed, his family now knows, finally, for certain. He was 27 years old. His crime, as far as they are concerned, was going to Karbala to pray.

Like the others buried here, he was not granted the dignity of a headstone to acknowledge his life, only a number painted on a rusty piece of metal to mark his death. Some graves lack even those plates and are perceptible only by the mildly sloping mound of dirt placed over their bodies.

On this field, a walled-off and once-secret section of the Al-Kark cemetery about a mile north of the prison, the dead lay in 20 crooked rows, 152 graves in nearly every row, which adds up to 3,040 bodies. In a piece of desert across a dirt road, there are perhaps twice as many graves, the numbered metal signs stuck into the ground on metal stakes, which lean left and right so that they lend a feeling of motion to what had been a still place.

"The bodies came in every day," said Qasim Hassan Al-Dulaimi, who began digging their graves four years ago, when he was 14. "Sometimes five a day, sometimes 10. About that many."

"This is the truth about Saddam," said Al-Khafaji's older brother, Yehiya, crying and motioning to other holes where young boys were digging for the missing and to the clusters of family members around those holes also crying as they looked into the ground. "We live in a tragedy in Iraq."

Some people, like the mother sitting next to grave No. 142, where the boys were still digging with their hands, would not acknowledge the loss fully unless their family members were pulled from under the dirt. Others, like Yehiya, had felt certain his brother was dead, had heard it was true, but that did not make yesterday any easier.

Sometime in 2000, the family does not remember which month, Murtada Abduljabbar Al-Khafaji was abducted by Hussein's secret police after traveling from his home in Basra to Karbala, where many Shias, like him, would travel in secret to pray.

When Hussein's Sunni government thought Shias were becoming too bold or when they felt they needed to make an example of someone or some family to keep a grip on power, they snatched young men like Al-Khafaji and made them disappear.

Two months after he was arrested, the secret police came to his family's home and told them he was in custody, but they would not say where he was being held.

"They said he was working against the government," his brother said. "But we know he was arrested only because he is Shia and he traveled to Karbala."

After a year, his father received a call: Come to Nasariyah to get your son's body, he was told; he has been executed.

Nobody in the family was certain whether this was true. The father got in his car, and shortly thereafter the phone rang again: Come get your father, the family was told; he has been killed in a car accident.

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