Iraqis Seek to Document a Brutal Past

Times Staff Writer

Hussein Safar drives north toward the blinding washes of sand where he was shot and left to die in a mass grave more than a decade ago.

The burial ground was a longtime open secret in this city; it reportedly holds the bones of some of the thousands who disappeared in 1991, after most of Iraq’s provinces rose up in a failed revolt against Saddam Hussein.

“The families ought to know that people have been killed here,” Safar said last week, standing over the graves. “They have to come to see the graves, because this has to be a part of history.”

All over Iraq, a massive effort is underway to collect and catalog evidence of the atrocities of the Baath Party regime. The ideas are different, but the impulse is the same: to create a historical record before the physical proof disappears.


Muslim groups in Najaf want to turn the burial ground into a commemorative cemetery. In Karbala, they want to build a museum. The elders of Nasiriyah are planning a public archive. In town after town, plazas and mosques have been converted into slapdash tributes to the thousands of victims whose murders and kidnappings were witnessed in silence -- until now.

With black banners strung over garden gates and teahouses, families are announcing the loss of sons and daughters who have been dead for 20 years. Cities are sending out gravediggers to unearth killing fields. Behind the activity is the deep fear of a long-repressed people -- that if Iraqis can’t document the past, their history will never be told.

“If you had asked me about this a few months ago, I would have told you, ‘I will give my blood and my soul for Saddam Hussein,’ ” said Majid Safar, a tailor who was imprisoned and tortured for more than a year on suspicion of associating with Kurds. “That’s all we could say.”

Their tongues are freed now -- but much of the evidence has been lost. Agents, assassins and police have gone into hiding, been killed or melted into the human landscape of their tribal villages. The documents have been burned and stolen. The prisons and interrogation rooms are bombed to dust.


And so this country’s religious and civic leaders are putting out crude television spots and posting pleas around town. They are asking the people to gather any evidence they can find and bring it back to makeshift public repositories. City leaders are stuffing paperwork into boxes and bags, and hoarding their stashes in back closets.


Stored in Memories

In the meantime, three decades of Iraqi history are borne in the memories of the people. There was a covert oral tradition here, of tales whispered to children and neighbors. And there were always the scars -- the cigarette burns, the dog bites, the knife trails fanning like feathers across bellies and backs.


“It isn’t written. It isn’t something you learn. It’s something that the people know,” said Abu Adi, a hotel manager in Najaf. “Everybody knows certain details about some things. Dates. How many people were killed. These things we know.”

Adi had been planning to escape to Syria in the late 1980s, but the government found him out. The men came for him as he climbed out of his car, blindfolded him and shoved him into an ice cream truck. He was locked away for three years and four months.

“If I told you what happened in prison,” he said, “you would quit journalism.”

At night he drinks tea in the mirrored lobby of his fading hotel and dreams about filing a lawsuit against the former head of public security. One day, he says, there will be a court. In the first days after the U.S. invasion, looters dropped by to peddle stolen intelligence files to journalists and local merchants.


“I was angry, because the papers belong to the public,” he said. “Future generations should never utter the word ‘Baath.’ ”

At the hands of the secular regime, it was the southern Shiite provinces that bled the most, along with the Kurdish regions of the north. People here say they were arrested for carrying religious tracts, or for reading books published overseas -- or for nothing at all. In the string of cities and villages stretching south from Baghdad toward the Persian Gulf, rare is the man or woman who went unscathed by the battery of arrests and murders.

In these parts, systematic repression figures into city history, neighborhood history -- even religious history. Shiite clergy are eager to review official accounts of the religious purge that killed scores of Shiite scholars in the 1990s.

“We aren’t the only ones concerned -- everybody is outraged,” said Mohammed Rodha, spokesman for the Bureau of Islamic Revolution. “All of the people are asking, ‘Where are the documents?’ ”


They are trapped in the heaps of bombed buildings, torn and sodden, fluttering in the hot winds like whispering leaves. They are shredded amid abandoned rockets in the public security building in Nasiriyah; tromped on by stray donkeys in Karbala.

There isn’t much left. Receipts for cash paid in trade for a neighbor’s secrets. Torn scraps of gun registrations. Handwritten notes detailing the movements of Iranian visitors.

They say the old regime hauled off many of the documents, threw them into rivers or squirreled them away. In the streets of Baghdad, the widespread burning of government offices was rumored to be an organized campaign meant to protect the men with blood on their hands. Some say the U.S. troops seized the documents.

“But the most important proof,” said Abdul Munem, the interim mayor of Najaf, “is the people themselves.”


The afternoon was almost gone when an out-of-work taxi driver named Yahiyeh Jassim wandered into the ruins of the Karbala intelligence office. A dust storm screamed across the plains and blotted out the sky. Jassim kicked through the rubble.

Like most of the old bureaucracies, the intelligence office was bombed into mounds of snapped rock and blasted concrete. In a curious scene of regeneration, a peasant family and its mule had taken up residence in the wreckage. The children had mixed mud, and were busily plastering together a new house from the broken bricks of the Baath regime.

“We have only the things we have seen,” Jassim said, looking on. “We have only ourselves to witness.”

Like thousands of others in this city, Jassim was arrested and tortured in the uprisings of 1991. He was jabbed with sticks, hung from the ceiling and shocked. He was 14 years old.


“We were accused of resisting the army,” he said. Then he paused, glanced around and smiled a little.

“We all participated,” he blurted out. “Until now, we were afraid to say it. I was taken with my uncle and his friends, and I never saw them again.”


Failed Revolt


The uprisings were the convulsion of a tormented people -- and a dark counterpoint to the forced elections and referendums in which Hussein collected 100% of the votes. But the revolt failed, and the people paid dearly.

Punishment from the regime was collective and arbitrary, and went on for years. The torture, arrests and executions set a new standard for a regime already notorious for random brutality.

Many rebels -- those who weren’t killed -- remain marked for life. In Hussein Safar’s case, it is the crater of a bullet wound in his left shoulder, deep pink, the size of a crab apple.

It was in the aftermath of the uprisings that Safar was stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint on the road to Najaf. His name figured on a list of those wanted for rebellion, the soldiers told him. They drove him to the Salaam Hotel, and herded him into the garden along with scores of others. Then trucks came rumbling to take them away.


Out in the desert, pits had been dug into the sand. Four at a time, the men were lined up along the rim. Four at a time, the rifles were fired, and the bodies dropped down.

A bullet tore into Safar’s shoulder, cut up through his neck and burst out his cheek. He landed atop dying men -- their bodies were still moving.

“I couldn’t tell whether I was alive or dead,” he said. Numb and bleeding, he played dead for a time, then crawled from the trench into the darkness. He still speaks as if he died that night. “When I got better I went to see a man whose father was killed with me,” Safar said, fingering a bullet he’s picked up from the sand. “I said to him, ‘Your father died with me.’ I thought he should know.”

Years later, villagers who live at the edge of the burial ground listen to his story, and nod, because they have seen the graves. It’s been a few years since the desert flooded and the bones came to light. The men from the government showed up with shovels, they said, and forced the villagers to dig fresh sand over the old remains.


In downtown Najaf, local lawyers and relatives of the disappeared are holding meetings this week to discuss what to do with the graves. After years of pretending they weren’t there, everybody wants the bodies exhumed. There is no government to ask, so they wait.