Over the last two weeks, several mass grave sites near Basra have been excavated without prior forensic analysis, making it may make it more difficult or even impossible to accurately identify the remains and to begin proper criminal investigations. Human Rights Watch has directly identified several mass grave sites where bodies have been removed for reburial without any forensic analysis.
“People are excavating mass graves around Basra at an increasing pace,” said Sam Zia-Zarifi, researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They’re desperate for information about their lost relatives. Unless coalition forces secure these sites and show people that they will initiate a process to answer their questions, a tremendous amount of evidence about Iraq’s bloody past will be destroyed.”
On April 20, Human Rights Watch requested assistance from coalition forces in securing one such site west of al-Zubayr near Basra. Despite promises from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which is responsible for such activity, Human Rights Watch has not seen any signs of the site being properly secured or prepared for investigation as of May 6.
The suspected site probably dates back to the crackdown following a Shi’a uprising in March 1999. Researchers for Human Rights Watch interviewed Settar Khalaf, a cattle herder living near the site who recounted that in spring of 1999, he saw a bulldozer dig three trenches in a remote area where he regularly takes his herd. The following morning he saw several buses and six Ba’ath party cars arrive on the site. Hiding some three hundred fifty meters from the vehicles, Khalaf saw men in military attire exiting from the cars and removing blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners from the buses. According to his estimates, 80-100 persons might have been in the buses. The prisoners were led in a line to the trenches, where they were placed one by one. Seconds later, the men in uniform began shooting at the prisoners with machine guns and pistols for several minutes. Then a bulldozer covered up the trenches.
One site near the al-Andules gas station northwest of Basra was dug up two weeks ago by relatives seeking their missing family members. According to an eyewitness who prefers to remain anonymous, in 1991 seventeen people were brought by bus to the site, shot there, and their bodies thrown into a trench. At least one of the people taken to be shot at the site managed to escape and informed relatives about the site’s whereabouts. Two weeks ago, the relatives came to the site, and removed the remains.
Another site, in the neighborhood of al-Mishraq al-Jedid near Saad square, may contain between 300-500 bodies reportedly buried after the 1991 uprising. Ahmad Qazem, age 32, a mechanic from a nearby car repair shop, told Human Rights Watch that in 1991 he saw men in uniform burying bodies using bulldozers. Five days ago, a group of civilians which Qazem reported included foreign nationals, made an attempt to dig up the grave but failed to locate the exact site.
“Given the number of victims believed to be buried in that grave, it is crucial that the site be mapped, ante-mortem data be collected from the relatives, and other proper procedures be followed to ensure that the hasty actions of a few do not compromise everyone’s need for truth and justice,” said Zia-Zarifi. “Only immediate action by the coalition forces can preserve the evidence for all the families and for any future legal procedures.”