Victims in Mass Graves Hid Clues in Clothing

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps they were so terrified they didn’t trust the officers who demanded their identification cards and they hid the cards beneath layers of clothes.

Or maybe they sensed their horrible fate and decided against giving up the last legal proof of their lives before gunshots turned them into anonymous corpses to be devoured by the desert.

Whatever their reasons, more than 10% of the victims found thus far in Saddam Hussein-era mass graves managed to die with their Iraqi identity cards still with them. The phenomenon has dramatically altered the course of the investigation into the former regime’s alleged crimes by allowing prosecutors to trace the victims back to their hometowns and construct more complete narratives of their harrowing journeys toward death.

“They had hidden them in secret pockets or sewn them in secret areas, especially the women,” said Michael “Sonny” Trimble, a forensic archeologist who oversees a team exhuming and examining mass graves linked to the former regime, including from the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which Kurdish villagers were deported from their homes and later executed.


“They were coming from the north,” said Trimble, who is attached to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They were told they were being resettled. But they knew.”

Trimble spoke Monday during the first media tour of the laboratories of the Mass Graves Team at the Regime Crimes Liaison Office, the law enforcement agency attached to the American Embassy that is helping an Iraqi court prosecute Hussein and his deputies on charges of human rights abuses.

The nine-tent compound on the outskirts of Baghdad includes an array of digital technology used to scan bones and map out gravesites and is staffed by international specialists in the art of resurrecting the lives and deaths of war crimes victims.

Team members say the women’s successful efforts to keep their identity cards may foil the former regime’s attempts to hide the killings and help Iraqi prosecutors win the upcoming Anfal trial, in which Hussein is accused of killing up to 180,000 Kurdish villagers.


“We can go back to the area where the identity cards were issued [and] we can find survivors,” said Raid Juhi, chief investigative judge of the Iraqi High Tribunal, which will begin proceedings on the Anfal after Hussein’s current trial ends. “We can find out about mechanisms and dates.”

The laminated identification cards known as gensiya have already gone a long way in helping the Mass Graves Team prepare the Anfal case, officials said.

Unlike the trial of Hussein and seven deputies on charges of human rights abuses against the Shiite villagers of Dujayl, now in closing arguments, the Anfal case will focus primarily on forensic evidence amassed by Trimble and his team.

The discovery of the gensiya allowed prosecutors to begin tying bodies to specific hometowns and surviving witnesses, who will be called upon to testify against Hussein.

Since starting operations in August 2004, Trimble has unearthed and dissected six mass grave sites in northwestern and southern Iraq. In all, the bodies of about 335 of the tens of thousands of victims believed to be buried in mass graves have been unearthed and analyzed.

Iraq’s security woes have prevented the team from venturing out to all but the safest sites. Unlike human rights groups, Trimble searches only pristine gravesites to build up a criminal case instead of attempting to ascertain the full scope of the crimes.

Many of the largest mass grave sites have been damaged by relatives searching for loved ones, he said. Getting a total count of victims might take decades.

“For me, a sample of 75 people is enough,” he said. “It’s a matter of, Can we link the location to a possible event and a defendant? If the [grave] is disturbed, I don’t want any part of it. From a crime-scene standpoint, it’s the end of the world.”


Tips from locals have pointed investigators in the direction of some gravesites.

For example, Bedouins tipped off U.S. Marines about a key Anfal site in Muthanna province near the southern city of Samawa shortly after the 2003 American-led invasion, a U.S. Embassy official said.

Using mapping software, Trimble’s team creates a digital model of each site he examines, looking for geographic anomalies.

In the case of a Karbala gravesite unearthed in May, the search team spotted an “artificial rise,” a classic indicator of a mass grave, amid the miles of undifferentiated desert terrain, said Mark Smith, an archeologist on the Mass Graves Team.

The scientists ascertain the size of a grave with test trenches. Backhoes remove the first layer of dirt, and then diggers get on their knees and carefully employ hand tools once they near the bodies. Often, the victims are buried under enormous volumes of sand and soil, what officials say were concerted efforts to erase the mass slayings from the pages of time.

A mass grave site in Nineveh province containing 64 men allegedly killed during the Anfal campaign was buried under more than 10 feet of dirt. Trimble called it “the deepest grave I’ve ever excavated in my life.”

“These people were not to be found again,” he said. “That was clear.”

Before removing corpses, Trimble’s team painstakingly maps a mass grave site by marking off 40 points around each body and storing the location of each in a computer database. Using metal detectors, the investigators find each bullet shell and casing and record their locations.


Once the information is compiled, the scientists make three-dimensional maps showing the bodies, casings and bullets, and suggest narratives for what may have gone on during the killings.

The bodies are sealed in bags, placed into plastic boxes and flown by helicopter to the forensic analysis facility.

In one tent, scientists separate clothes and belongings from human remains, meticulously labeling each item. In the cultural objects tent, victims’ clothes are cleaned with brushes and laid on white boards or put on wooden mannequins as possible courtroom displays.

Ariana Fernandez, a Costa Rican forensic anthropologist, displayed a mannequin of one apparently pregnant woman found clutching her stomach. “She might be Kurdish because of the way she’s dressed,” Fernandez said.

Before they were loaded onto trucks and buses, the female victims of the Anfal, allegedly told they were being relocated, were believed to have been given a bit of time to gather up their belongings and put on multiple layers of clothing. Many accounts of the Anfal campaign have stated that security forces seized the victims’ IDs before killing them.

It was among the women’s clothes that investigators began discovering the identification cards, hidden in secret compartments or beneath thick layers.

Often the women were hiding several IDs, including those of their children. For investigators, the discovery of the cards during the team’s first excavation of Anfal sites in Nineveh in 2004 changed the endeavor from a forensic analysis of bones and bullet wounds to an effort to track down survivors.

The identity cards, which include a photograph, name, birth date and place of issue, provided a key to the victims’ stories, linking them definitively to the Anfal campaign.

“The focus changed,” Trimble said. “It was dramatic. We went from, ‘Let’s do the clothes and forensic analysis’ to ‘Let’s do the clothes, the bones can wait.’ Our whole Anfal investigation was based on finalizing IDs and then running them over to the FBI and the Regime Crimes Liaison Office.”

Even the digital equipment used to photograph remains was employed in the effort -- to help gain information from frayed or faded IDs. During the tour of the photography lab, Australian David Hempenstall took the badly damaged gensiya found in one gravesite and sharpened the contrast to reveal the name and picture of a young woman born in 1964 in the Dukan section of Sulaymaniya province.

“From the gensiya you know the person, which office [issued the card], which family, which village,” said Jaafar Mousawi, a prosecutor in Hussein’s Dujayl case.

The mystery remains as to why and how the women decided not to give up their last ties to their identities. In the mass grave in Muthanna province, investigators found the body of a woman who had hidden away five ID cards, all of which survived the two decades since the Anfal.

“She was either the sister or mother, [and] she was hiding their family’s gensiya,” Juhi said. “Maybe the authorities didn’t know they were hiding them. They told them, ‘We’re not going to kill you, we’re going to move you.’ Maybe they felt danger around them. Who knows?”