Bodies yield evidence for case against Hussein

Posted in Iraq | 17-Aug-06 | Author: Kirk Semple| Source: International Herald Tribune

Ariana Fernández, an anthropologist on a forensic team, pointed to a bullet hole in a Kurdish child’s clothes.
BAGHDAD Beneath the clinical glare of fluorescent lights in a collection of makeshift laboratories here, the victims of mass murder under Saddam Hussein are slowly brought back to life.

For two years, a team of forensic scientists from around the world has sifted through bones, clothes, identity papers and spent bullet casings exhumed from mass graves to build criminal cases against Hussein and to reconstruct the victims' final moments.

"I made a decision we're going to give the individual a voice," Michael Trimble, the director of the mass graves team, said during a recent tour of the laboratories, on a secret site in western Baghdad.

That voice, he said, is captured in a four-page file, one for each victim, describing the data that the scientists have been able to glean from the skeletal remains and other evidence.

In all, the investigators have excavated nine mass graves - from among the more than 200 scattered around the country containing, by some estimates, tens of thousands of victims - and have completed more than 330 files.

The forensic files will come into play for the first time on Aug. 21, when Hussein is to stand trial on genocide charges, accused of trying to annihilate the Kurdish people in 1988. He is alleged to have ordered military operations that wiped out entire villages, sometimes with chemical weapons, killing at least 50,000 people.

The team, part of the Regime Crimes Liaison Office organized by the United States Justice Department, has been helping the Iraqi judicial system try Hussein and members of his government.

It is also preparing files on Hussein's brutal suppression of the Shiite uprising across southern Iraq at the end of the Persian Gulf war in early 1991. At least 100,000 Shiites, and possibly twice that number, died, according to court officials.

Those would be the second and third trials of Hussein before an Iraqi special tribunal. The first concerned the deaths of 148 men and boys in the mostly Shiite town of Dujail after an assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982. It has been adjourned until October, when a verdict is expected. The forensic team did not participate in that case.

The forensic case files are a result of painstaking work that began on barren sweeps of desert where the team was led by informants or by satellite imagery that suggested that the ground had been disturbed.

In a meticulous process of documentation, the investigators used sophisticated imaging technology to map the contents of the graves, including the location of each body, spent cartridge and bullet. The remains were then flown by helicopter to the team's laboratories in a fortified compound in western Baghdad.

On a gray wooden work table in the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, two yellowing skeletons lay side by side. One was that of a woman between the ages of 35 and 50 with a bullet hole in the back of her skull. Next to her were the tiny bones of an infant no older than a year. A separate bullet had shattered the baby's skull, which investigators reassembled using surgical tape.

These were Case No. 19 (the baby) and No. 20 (the woman), two of the 123 victims whose bodies Trimble's team pulled from a mass grave in a remote area about 60 miles from the northern town of Hatra.

The grave, known as Nineveh 2, is one of three sites the investigators are using to help build the Kurdish genocide case against Hussein. The skeletal remains, still clothed, were found lying face up, the woman's left arm around the child, who was wrapped in a blanket decorated with a bunny appliqué.

The woman may have been the child's mother, or perhaps a relative or a neighbor - the investigators cannot say for sure. But what is certain is that they died in an embrace.

Raad Juhi, the chief investigative judge, said the victims had been told that they were being relocated from their villages near Sulaimaniya to a residential complex elsewhere.

Case No. 20 was dressed in five layers of clothing, suggesting that she had not been allowed to pack a suitcase and had left home in a hurry. She was carrying a handbag with some baby clothes and personal items: a spool of thread, a tube of antibiotic ointment, matches, a metal container, some coins, a barrette and five pairs of gold earrings.

The child was dressed in soft white pants, a red pullover and a white long-sleeved shirt decorated with red trim, a drawing of a red sun hat and the word "summer."

Like thousands of other victims, Juhi said, the victims were herded aboard buses and driven to a holding camp near Kirkuk called Topzawa. From there they were driven into the remote desert, separated into groups - men in one, women and children in another - and then corralled into trenches.

It all "was very systematic, highly organized," Trimble said

In some cases, gunmen stood above the mass graves and sprayed their victims with automatic gunfire. The women and children in Nineveh 2, though, were executed in a far more meticulous fashion: one by one, with gunshots to the back of the head, the investigators said. Of the 123 victims, 95 were children, 88 of them no older than 12.

In another tent, Mark Smith, the team's archaeological field director, stood before a computer screen and demonstrated how researchers had reduced the tragedy to digitized data to aid prosecutors in constructing a precise narrative of those final gruesome minutes.

He went through several different graphic renderings of a mass grave associated with the Shiite uprising: one showed the outlines of all the bodies, others the bodies color-coded by age range, the number of gunshots they suffered and whether they were wearing blindfolds or had their hands bound.

Those maps help investigators analyze how the victims were marched in, where the gunmen were standing, the trajectory of the bullets and how the bodies fell. "We're looking for patterns," Smith said.

Several yards away, in the Cultural Objects Laboratory, Ariana Fernández, a cultural anthropologist from Costa Rica, studied the clothes and artifacts found on the bodies in an effort to draw further clues about their identities and their fates.

Mannequins dressed in recovered clothing populate the laboratory, giving it the look of a wardrobe workshop. On a large plywood board, Fernández had laid out the clothing that Case No. 19 and Case No. 20 were wearing when they were murdered.

"You take them from the ground, you lift them up and they're individuals again," she said. "It humanizes them."

The researchers have given some of the victims nicknames: Quinn - after the Bob Dylan song "Quinn the Eskimo" - for a boy who was found in a ski jacket with a fluffy hood; Pochahontas for a girl wearing a shirt with a beaded design; and Gray Guy, Brown Guy and the Blue Man.

"It's not a deliberate thing," explained Kerrie Grant, an archaeologist on the mass graves team. "We get attached to them. It gives them some of their humanity back."

There was also "The Little Girl With the Ball." She was found in Nineveh 2 with a red-and-white ball in her hands. "You spend enough time with these individuals, you really want to see them go home," Trimble said.

But it is a cold reality of the job that the team's mandate - and budget - do not encompass the return of the victims' remains to their home villages.

That work, they hope, will be taken up by other organizations if the violence eases. But so far no group has come forward, and until then, the hundreds exhumed by the mass graves team will have to speak for the tens of thousands of others who remain buried.

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting for this article.