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

Iraqi Officials Urged to Exhume Anfal-Era Graves

Authorities have begun excavating one site where some 300 victims are buried, but say they lack the resources to start work on six others.
By Hazim al-Sharaa
  • Newly exhumed remains of what are believed to be Anfal campaign victims. (Photo: Mass Graves Victims Human Center)
    Newly exhumed remains of what are believed to be Anfal campaign victims. (Photo: Mass Graves Victims Human Center)

With every new discovery of a mass grave, Mahmood Majeed believes he is getting closer to finding the remains of his missing family and closing a painful chapter that wrecked his life.

Ever since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the 50-year old has been searching for the remains of his family who vanished during the so-called Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s. In all, between 180,000 to 300,000 disappeared and 2,000 villages were destroyed.

During the operation, men, women and children were often separated, executed and then buried at desert locations in west and south-west Iraq.

Majeed, a former farmer who is now a Kirkuk shop owner, remembers the night he managed to escape security forces commanded by Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, the head of the northern bureau of the ruling Baath party.

As he was returning home from his farm, just outside his village of Haider Rasool in the Garmiyan district of Kirkuk, he saw it had been surrounded by troops supported by tanks and trucks. He immediately feared the worst.

Out of sight and under the cover of darkness, he crawled away and hid in the adjoining hills, watching through his binoculars. He said he saw soldiers loading the villagers onto trucks before bulldozing their homes to rubble.

That was the last day he saw his family and the villagers he once shared his life with.

With the Ministry of Human Rights, MHR, announcement in July that it is has discovered seven new mass graves believed to contain the remains of victims of the Anfal campaign from Kirkuk, Majeed hopes he can finally give his relatives a decent burial and say his farewell.

“[With the] Anfal campaign I lost everything, my family, and my work,” he said. “I was a proud farmer with land, but now I’m just a shopkeeper.” That night through his binoculars, he watched the soldiers load his mother as well as his brother, three sisters and two other close relatives onto trucks and away to an uncertain fate.

Following Anfal, Saddam offered Iraqi Kurds an amnesty if they signed up to the national army. Majeed joined the military in the hope that some senior officials could shed some light on his family’s final resting place but received no answers. Several years later, after the fall of Saddam, he left the army and lobbied local ministers to speed up mass grave excavation procedures in parliament. He still urges the government to do more.

The MHR disclosed this month that it had found a Kirkuk ID card at a site - off limits during the Saddam era - being excavated at one of the seven newly-discovered sites south-west of Al-Qadisiyah in Diwaniyah province, 180 kilometres south of Baghdad.

The remains of 300 men, women and children, some with crushed skulls were found at the location, said Yahya al-Qaseer, the executive director of the Mass Graves Victims Centre, based in Al-Qadisiyah.

The remains were discovered in seven 45-metre-long narrow trenches, a MHR spokesperson told IWPR.

The latest discovery brings the total of suspected mass graves sites in Iraq to 277, of which 48 have been excavated.

Al-Qaseer says his organisation knew of the newly discovered mass graves as early as 2003, when activists from his organisations visited the sites, but did not have a mandate to carry out exhumations. They alerted the authorities, but did not disclose their findings to the public. He charged that the ministry had been fully aware for a considerable time of the existence of the mass graves.

Kamil Ameen, a second spokesperson at the MHR, denied that his ministry had known about the sites but acknowledged that the ministry’s priority was “not to open new [mass] graves, but to complete existing work”. He added that such desert exhumations are time consuming and - with 48 ongoing excavations taking place across Iraq - the ministry lacked sufficient resources. Ameen said that, for the time being, they could only deal with the Al-Qadisiyah site, and the other six would have to wait.

A mass graves law introduced in 2009 states only the MHR is authorised to inspect and excavate new mass graves and identify the victims. “This needs to be changed in order to close a painful page in Iraq’s history,” said Fouad Uthman, the spokesman of the Martyrs and Anfal Victims Ministry in the Kurdistan region, who is calling for an additional ministry or group to be tasked with identifying victims in order to speed up the process.

For Majeed, the new exhumations mean that his 20- year search for the remains of his family might soon be over.

Once their remains are found, he said, “My heart can rest and I can bury them properly.”

Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR editor in Iraq.