While the regime of Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, there were reports of brutal repression in which thousands of people were executed because they opposed, or were thought to oppose, the government. Now, evidence of the extent of those political murders is coming to light.
The families tend to come in small groups. They find a sea of plastic bags containing personal belongings in this field in a place called Mahaweel. In the field is a mass grave site, one of the first excavated, which is revealing the long-held secrets of the killing fields of Iraq. In late May, bodies were found here in trenches where they had been machine gunned and covered over.
"In Mahaweel, approximately 2,500 bodies were exhumed from the graves, of which approximately half were claimed by the relatives," said Johanna Bjorken of Human Rights Watch
The remaining bodies have been separately reburied, awaiting their relatives to find them.
Kathim Ubeid lives nearby. He watched as government soldiers brought truckloads of people here for two weeks in April, 1991, just after Iraq was driven from its occupation of Kuwait.
"Most of them were civilians," he said. "They took them by busses to the El muhawell Camp. After that they brought all those people into that ditch area and they were executed massively.”
Nori Hassan has been here before. Earlier, he found the body of one son who had been a soldier in Kuwait. He says his other missing son is probably here too. Evidence and witnesses indicate these people were killed because they were suspected participants in a Shiite rebellion in the wake of the first Gulf War.
Inside the bags and scattered on the ground are personal items and mute evidence of massacre: a woman’s abaya shredded by bullets, an old man’s robe, a sixteen-year-old boy’s clothing and ID card, bits of the Koran and money, shoes; one belonging to a young girl. In one spot a 17-year-old woman and her husband died together. Everywhere, you can see the bindings for the victims’ eyes and hands.
Families looked among the belongings to see if it is their missing relative who lies beneath. People blame a local sheik for allowing his land to be used for the massacres. They accuse him of doing it for money. They want him punished. So far, there has been little real forensic work done to document the evidence at the site, and much remains to be done in terms of investigating how many bodies remain here and elsewhere.
"There have been more than a hundred sites identified so far," Bjorken said. "But we think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. By our estimates, there are more than 290,000 people missing. And the sad truth is that most of them probably are lying in such graves."