"There is another Iraq, buried under Iraq."
Kurdistan Mass Graves Commission
"There is nothing more awful than standing on the edge of a mass grave to watch the bodies being dug up and their families looking on, identifying them, saying this is my husband, this is my son."
Ann Clwyd MP, Former Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Human Rights in Iraq
“We saw for ourselves mass graves and also pits with just bones when we went to the far north area of Garmiyan. Row after row of baby sized coffins, filled with bones. Incomplete, unable to be identified, but at least given dignity. "
Robert Halfon MP, Vice-Chair All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq
“Large numbers of missing persons are a powerful symbol of a failure to safeguard individual rights and to uphold the rule of law. They are a constant reminder of human vulnerability and exposure to tyranny. They contribute to maintaining the atmosphere of distrust that so often defines the fragility of governments in transition and they adversely affect the credibility of political, democratic and rule of law institutions. While seeking answers in each individual missing persons case is important, addressing the issue at the aggregate level of society, where it affects the credibility and prospects of political transitions, is of no less importance. […] Family members have a right to information concerning the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. This right is clearly stated in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Resolution 7/28 of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and other human rights instruments, as well as in international humanitarian law as applicable.”
Kathryne Bomberger, Director-General, International Commission of Missing Persons
The Iraqi government estimates that there are 500,000 missing people, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP); however, some estimates put the number of missing from Saddam’s attacks, including attacks against the Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, at more than 1million.
There were 270 mass graves estimated in Iraq in 2006 containing between 10 to 10,000 bodies each, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, which is working in Iraq and with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to identify and forensically excavate mass graves in order to identify and repatriate victims’ remains to their families using DNA testing. However, the ICMP anticipates uncovering far more as these 270 are only the ones reported by soldiers or people living in the area.
The Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq has previously announced 400 mass graves in the country, some of which contain Kurdish people killed in the 1980s, particularly during the Anfal operation, which targeted Kurdish villagers mostly in Garmiyan area south of Suleimaniya and east of Kirkuk. Eight out of ten graves that the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has excavated so far have been Kurdish graves, recovering 3,000 to 4,000 bodies already. The key issue for the KRG so far has therefore been to find people buried in the lower Iraq and bring them back to Kurdistan for proper burial.
Up to seven such mass graves found in southern Iraq containing Kurdish bodies were found in July 2011. Hundreds of Kurds were executed by firing squads and buried in the heart of the southern deserts and their bodies now found and excavated near Mihari village of Al-Diwaniya province, near the borders of Muthanna and Najaf provinces. Initial signs reveal the victims are from Kirkuk and Garmiyan areas. Local witnesses says that in late 1987 they saw military vehicles coming loaded with people brought to the area, killed and buried there. The excavation has unearthed remains of 400 bodies, mostly men and dressed in Kurdish clothing. Those working on the excavation said that the work is very hard in the summer because the graves are located in the desert.
Other mass graves containing Kurdish Anfal victims have already been excavated and the bodies reburied in special ceremonies in Kurdistan Region. They were reburied in the victims' home town of Chamchamal.
Another 512 bodies and their remains were reburied in Kurdistan’s capital city of Erbil in October 2006. These victims were among the 8000 members of the Barzani clan who disappeared and were killed in 1983 by Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. The bodies were dug up from the mass grave in Bsaya in southern Iraq, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia.
The KRG's Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs is working to unearth around 70 mass graves in the Hamreen hills between Kirkuk and Tikrit.
In 2006 Iraq passed the Law on Protection of Mass Graves, which provides a coherent legal mechanism for locating missing persons, conducting excavations of mortal remains and for identifications of victims exhumed from mass graves. Through this law, authority is given to the Ministry for Human Rights to lead these efforts. Iraq has also signed international agreements and is involved in bi-lateral process aimed at locating persons who disappeared during previous armed conflicts.
Families have found it difficult to come to terms with their losses, as most of them have never found the bodies of their loved ones or found out how they died.
ICMP ACTIVITIES IN KURDISTAN AND IRAQ
“Saddam has been one of the most effective dictators in terms of killing people - he took most of his victims into prison camps, distributed them around the country and killed them. This means that Kurds have been killed and their bodies scattered around southern part of Iraq and not necessarily in Kurdistan. This makes the job of finding and identifying them extremely difficult, complex and expensive.”
Johnathan McKaskill, Head of the ICMP in Iraq
The ICMP began its work in Iraq immediately after the fall of the regime in 2003. It established presence in Baghdad in 2008 and in Erbil in 2012. The effective use of DNA as a means of mass identification since 1996 has transformed ICMP from a small organization operating on an essentially political level into the biggest identification program in the world. ICMP currently operates the world’s largest high-throughput DNA human identification facility.
The ICMP is working with Iraqi authorities to create an Iraq specific Forensic Data Management System that would be instrumental to the creation of Central Records. In addition, the ICMP has proposed assistance in using DNA to identify victims.
The ICMP has played a key role in the forensic work and the capacity building in Kurdistan, training local experts in forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology, and forensic excavation. Some 170 people have been trained since 2008. Together with the KRG, the ICMP is currently preparing to conduct excavations in the Kurdistan Region. Local experts have already been conducting small excavations in Kurdistan themselves, and have in addition been trained to identify the causes of death, removing evidence from the graves and associating them with the victim.