The images were shocking.
A trench with piles of clothed bodies packed tightly together. Men, women, little children. Even unborn children. Some blindfolded. Some with their hands bound. All slaughtered in cold blood by the henchmen of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (search).
All of this horror was discovered in another mass grave in the desert wasteland of northwestern Iraq, near the town of Hatra. It was discovered a year ago, and only now is it being carefully and scientifically excavated by the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (search). This agency, part of the U.S. Justice Department, is working with the Iraqi interim government to map out the horrors of the Hussein past.
The head of the unit, Greg Kehoe, who has seen more than his share of horrors in places such as the Balkans, couldn’t believe what he saw.
"I’ve never seen women and children executed, defenseless people executed in this fashion," he said. "I mean, you look at a young woman holding her 2-year-old child with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. I can’t find any reason to justify that."
When I saw the images I could only think back to Hilla, a town south of Baghdad where I went in the spring of 2003, just after the fall of Saddam. A mass grave of Iraqi Shiites was discovered there.
I will never forget it for as long as I live. Thousands of bodies. Thousands of families swarming over piles of clothing and flesh. Earth-moving equipment digging through the raw humanity. Digging up the past.
Some of these people were opponents of the regime, gunned down after an uprising against Saddam in 1991 and then dumped in big trenches. Women and civilians were also among the victims.
Beyond the visual impression, though, it is the smell that I will never forget. The bodies had been underground for over 10 years, but you could still feel the rot of the past. The remainder and reminder of life, snuffed out by a horrendous regime.
The scene was pure chaos. People were running from pile to pile, looking for loved ones long lost. With so much emotion built up you could imagine and understand why no one was carefully going about the business of sorting through the human debris.
And the lucky ones were satisfied enough to bring away their family members in crudely made coffins for long-postponed burials.
There was only one problem with that scene: Saddam got off the hook. It didn't seem that enough could have been done to carefully record who was killed, how they were killed and where they were found. And so no real evidence could have been gathered that might be used in, say, a war crimes trial against Saddam Hussein and the thugs who took his orders.
That is what the team at this latest mass grave is trying to rectify. It is believed these bodies came from Sulamaniyah (search), one of the major cities of Kurdistan. The Kurds were one of the mass groups of people in Iraq that the Iraqi leader despised. At the time of one of the Kurdish uprisings against Baghdad in 1987-88, these people were shuttled over to this desolate spot and killed.
But thanks to this isolated location of horror and the team's organization, this "war crime" scene has been preserved and can be handled in a proper way. Body locations are mapped, and then the bodies are exhumed from the location and taken to a moveable morgue where the corpses undergo more scrutiny.
All of that information and evidence will then be provided to the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which is preparing the case against Hussein and others. Here’s how archaeologist Sonny Trimble put it:
“Our real, ultimate goal is to get evidence that’s so tight that when they bring certain regime leaders to trial, it’s very tight, just like any trial you would have in the United States or anywhere else in the world.”
It’s thought that there are as many as 3,000 bodies at this one site alone, but the workers will only unearth 200 to 300. There is not enough time for more, but there are many more sites to examine.
By one estimate, 300,000 people were slaughtered during Saddam's rule and dumped in 40 different mass grave sites around the country.
There is something else that will come of this: Once the legal value can be obtained from the site, the emotional worth can be salvaged, too. It is said that photographs of all of those found, including just the remains, will be brought to their former home for possible identification by families. Maybe these and other victims of the now long-gone regime can get a proper burial, not just a killing field.