Iraq

‘KILLING WAS JUST A GAME’

Hundreds of Iraqis are digging through mass graves in search of relatives

ADNAN R. KHAN June 2 2003
Iraq

‘KILLING WAS JUST A GAME’

Hundreds of Iraqis are digging through mass graves in search of relatives

ADNAN R. KHAN June 2 2003

‘KILLING WAS JUST A GAME’

Iraq

Hundreds of Iraqis are digging through mass graves in search of relatives

ADNAN R. KHAN

A PHANTOM haunts the thoughts of Salima Janad. Nearly 23 years after she gave birth to her first son, Dawad, the only thing that brings her comfort is the ghost that enters her dreams every night. “I know it’s him,” the 57-year-old mother of five says, a desperate gleam in her exhausted eyes. “He tells me not to worry. He tells me he’s happy where he is. That’s how I know he’s dead. How could he be happy, still alive in this place?” She waves her hand at the crumbling remains of Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq’s infamous house of death just south of Baghdad. In the snooker-table-sized hole at her feet, her husband Mahmoud digs into the arid dirt with his bare hands—desperate, after five years of uncertainty over his son’s fate, to find something, a remnant of cloth, a watch, anything to indicate this is where Dawad is buried.

A bombed-out guard tower stands above the grieving couple, still menacing despite missing half its platform. At its base, a building houses rows of cells. A few people wander aimlessly through its halls in a daze, only half believing the reality of what went on here. But a sentence written on a cell wall reveals the terrible truth: “My god, save me. Jasim Meki, Basra, Aug. 1, 2002.” Scratched into the stained and crumbling plaster of a cell measuring two-by-three metres, the chilling plea echoes through an entire generation of Iraqis. Men and women who lived—and too often died—in fear, trapped in the nightmare that was life under the rule of Saddam Hussein. “Saddam is a monster,” Salima says, holding back the

tears that come and go in waves. “He deserves to be buried alive with these bodies. Killing was just a game to him.”

Human rights groups estimate that as many as 250,000 people lost their lives under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, many of them after years of imprisonment and torture. Dawad was a 21-year-old construction labourer working in Saddam City on the eastern fringe of Baghdad. He went to work one day and never came home. That was the last anyone ever heard of him. Perhaps he said something to the wrong person, or made an innocent comment that was overheard and misconstrued. “My son was no criminal, never talked about politics or religion,” Salima says. “He hated Saddam but he was quiet about it.”

It’s likely that Dawad’s body is buried in one of the mass graves now being unearthed by frantic relatives near Baghdad. In al-Hilla, 80 km south of the city, 15,000 bodies have been found, according to human rights groups. More than 1,000 are in a gravesite near the village of Muhammad Sakran, about 40 km north of Baghdad. Hundreds more are being uncovered in and around Abu Ghraib, where the most recent executions took place. At one point during the dying days of the regime, for the sake of efficiency, hundreds were buried at the very footstep of the gallows.

The prison complex, covering at least a square kilometre, has a park-like feel. Rose gardens are in bloom; some of the murals, painted by prisoners on outside walls and depicting mountains, rivers and fields, are untouched. It’s a strange contrast to the dingy interiors of the cellblocks—as if the incarcerated creators of the paintings were crafting something as far from their ugly reality as possible. The prisoners were crowded into windowless cells, sleeping on concrete floors, using holes in the ground as toilets. According to Dr. Maher Fakher Khashan, a physician who worked in Abu Ghraib, Wednesday was execution day. The usual techniques were hanging or a firing squad, though on occasion, Khashan admits, he was forced to inject prisoners with poison and then had to sign documents attributing the death to natural causes.

One of the most macabre incidents at Abu Ghraib occurred on March 16, 1998, when nearly 2,000 political prisoners were executed as part of a nationwide “prison cleansing.” According to Khalid Sajed alJanabi, a former captain in the Mukhabarat, the dreaded secret service, Saddam’s son Qusay arrived at the prison with members of his special security force and ordered the mass killing. “Most of the victims were from southern Iraq, accused of joining banned political parties and taking part in anti-government activities,” said al-Janabi, who fled to Jordan in June 1999 and recently returned to Baghdad. “There was, of course, no foundation for such accusations, but accusing people of such activity is standard procedure. Most seemed quite helpless to me and didn’t appear likely to threaten Saddam.”

The killing began at 6 a.m. and continued until 9 p.m.—at the rate of an execution nearly every 30 seconds. Some people were hanged, but most faced the firing squad. An execution normally requires two bullets, one to the chest and another to the

head. But to save both time and ammunition, Qusay declared that one bullet to the head would have to do.

By a faded white building where foreign prisoners were held is a fresh grave containing at least 14 bodies. They were all found wearing civilian clothes, hands tied behind their backs and heads covered with the black executioner’s hood. Their identities are still a mystery, though Salima is certain her son is not one of them.

With so much of the prison’s paperwork burned or looted, there is a growing concern

‘SADDAM HUSSEIN is a monster,’ says Salima, holding back the tears. ‘He deserves to be buried alive with these bodies.’

that identification of some bodies may be impossible. Some international human rights organizations, led by Human Rights Watch, have raised warning flags about the chaos. “The U.S. government has not acted on important information about mass graves in Iraq,” warns Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The result is desperate families trying to dig up the site themselves—disturbing the evidence for forensic experts who could establish the identities of the victims.”

But for the searchers, such considerations are meaningless. Salima refuses to enter the prison, and stands with her back to the gated entrance as she keeps her eyes fixed on her husband. Another man, a stranger, picking up a discarded shard of plastic piping to use as a shovel, joins to help in the digging. “We don’t know if Dawad is buried in there,” Salima says, pacing around the pit. “If we don’t find him here we’ll dig up all of Iraq until we do.”

The stranger with the makeshift shovel begins to scrape around a small mound in one corner of the pit. Mahmoud steps back a few steps as a gust of wind whips up sand, forcing the small group of anxious observers to cover their faces. The stranger also steps back, staring at the spot where, moments earlier, he’d been sweeping aside the dirt. There, protruding from the earth, is a human shoulder, covered with dirt and the waxy remains of decaying flesh. The stench makes it difficult to breathe. Salima, dazed, wanders off as her husband covers the grisly find with a sheet of corrugated metal. Confronted with the possibility that this could be Dawad, the couple temporarily abandon their search. But, determined to give their son a proper burial, they will return later to examine the latest victim yielded up by the Abu Ghraib prison. If it is Dawad, the pain of recovery may be balanced by the opportunity to put their son’s spirit to rest. Until then, he will continue to haunt Salima’s dreams. ITU