THE MASS GRAVE NEAR AL-MAHAWIL MILITARY BASE
Iraq, May 15, 2003
In 1991, farmers working near the al-Mahawil military base
surreptitiously watched the murder and burial of thousands of men,
women, and children in a dusty plot of land nearby. For years they said
nothing, but with the fall of Saddamâ€™s regime word spread of a mass
grave at the site, and within a few days villagers began to dig.
Despite the scale of the crime, it wasnâ€™t one the Americans wanted to
investigate, and they had classified the site as â€œhumanitarian,â€ not
â€œcriminal,â€ meaning they would not protect it.
â€œKeep in mind that we see this as an Iraqi process…,â€ explained Marines
Captain Romley, the U.S. military spokesman at the site. â€œWe want to
respect the wishes of the Iraqi victims and their families.â€
Arguing with him was Peter Bouckaert, a researcher and activist with
Human Rights Watch. Bouckaert complained that the Iraqis were
destroying the site and that it was the militaryâ€™s responsible to stop
it. They refused, so Bouckaert called in the press. After a week of bad
publicity, the site was closed. By then it was too late.
The site was a complete mess. Bones and clothing were lost and
commingled, and potentially identifying artifacts, such as ID cards and
jewelry, were lost or destroyed. In the end, around 2,600 remains were
pulled from the ground. Of these, 15% were claimed by families basing
their identifications on ID cards, clothing, and sometimes no more than
the brand of cigarettes found with the skeleton. The rest of the bones
were individually reburied, with plastic bags of rotting clothes placed
above each grave in the hope someone might recognize them.