Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

DNA Testing to Reveal Mass Grave Secrets

First Iraqi project to identify victims of Saddam’s crimes against the Kurds underway at site near Kirkuk.
By Kamaran Najm
One indecipherable ID card and a tattered 1990 World Cup T-shirt were the only scraps of personal information found amid skeletal remains unearthed from mass graves in the village of Topzawa near Kirkuk last week.

The remains serve as grisly reminders of the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s, known as Anfal, which led to the disappearance of an estimated 180,000 people.

Hundreds of mass graves, with many of the victims believed to be Kurds, have been reported since the regime was toppled in 2003. Most of the dead have so far remained unidentified.

But officials now say a campaign is underway to use high-tech forensic methods and DNA testing to identify the victims and return remains to loved ones. The Topzawa project is being heralded by authorities as the first-ever joint operation between Erbil and Baghdad to excavate Iraq’s killing fields.

"These [Topzawa] graves were first discovered ten years ago after the fall of the Baathist regime. But we didn't excavate them until we had the proper experts and cooperation between the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] and Baghdad," said Yasim Karim Amin, an adviser to the KRG on mass graves.

Amin estimated that the three graves unearthed at Topzawa, ten kilometres west of the city of Kirkuk, contained at least 25 corpses each. According to Amin, a torn identification document found in one of the graves was believed to come from Chamchamal, a town near Kirkuk.

"They are civilians, I can tell by their clothes. All of them are civilians. But aside from that we really have no idea who they are. They were completely skeletal, no flesh," said Raid Alsaadi, a forensics instructor with the International Commission on Missing Persons, a Sarajevo-based NGO brought in to assist in the excavation.

The commission has used DNA to identify the remains of thousands who went missing in conflict areas worldwide. Iraq set up its first DNA lab a year ago.

"We also don't know yet when these civilians were killed. All I can tell is that [some were killed] after 1990 because we found a shirt of the Italian football World Cup in 1990. [The one] ID card [we found] was too damaged by moisture," Alsaadi added.

Thousands of other Kurds, mostly from the Grmyan area northeast of Baghdad, were taken to Topzawa during the Anfal campaign, which began in 1986 and ended three years later. While it is believed that many were then transferred to the south, the mass graves indicate people died or were killed there as well.

"The people in the mass graves are two kinds,” Topzawa resident Bilal Osman Muhammad, 31, told IWPR. “First, there are those killed in the Anfal campaign in 1987. The others were killed after 1991 when the Kurds were defeated by the Iraqi regime."

Muhammad has seen two mass graves uncovered near Topzawa and believes he knows the location of three more. He says the Iraqi ministry of human rights prohibited locals from digging in suspected sites.

Alsaadi, who has worked uncovering mass graves in Iraq since 2004, said he supported the government ban on unauthorised excavations and was looking forward to further collaboration with the KRG and Baghdad.

"The [Topzawa site] was found in 2004 and many people came here looking for their relatives. They dug many holes and… made a lot of mistakes," Alsaadi told IWPR. "Now we are supporting them and giving them some advice on how to excavate using scientific procedures. And also we can support them with the DNA analysis."

Alsaadi said that after the bodies are exhumed, a DNA database will be cross-referenced with a list of missing persons. The International Commission on Missing Persons will then take blood samples from living relatives and match the results. He noted that this process will not only link families to lost loved ones, but assist with the process of justice.

"With testing, we can find those persons who were murdered by the ex-regime. We might give some good information for the prosecutors and they can decide who the perpetrators are," Alsaadi said.

Taha Sleman, a journalist, who lost 76 relatives during the Anfal campaign and has not been able to find their remains, said, “We hope the KRG makes it a priority to develop this method to help us find our missing relatives.”

Alsaadi says there may be more opportunities to use DNA technology in the future.

"Many people come to the police to tell them they have found a mass grave. But unfortunately there are security issues. It's a big problem – a forensic team needs good security to work and we are still finding many, many mass graves," he said.

Kamaran Najm is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. Hemin H Lihony is an IWPR local editor based in Sulaimaniyah.

More IWPR's Global Voices