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

Uncovering the Dead

A remarkable Iraqi volunteer group is helping families collect the remains of Saddam’s victims, and close a sad chapter in Iraqi history.
By Nir Rosen

Abdel Sattar al-Musawi’s decomposed remains lie on the ground above his former grave. His older brothers sit beside them, holding them and crying. Although he was arrested in 1998 and killed in 2001, they only learned of his death three days ago. "His crime was loving freedom," says his friend Abdel Karim, who came to find his own brother.


With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of thousands of political prisoners are finally being revealed to their families. More often than not, the news is not good.


Several dozen members of the al-Musawi family have come to claim four of their brethren from the Karkh cemetery in Haswa, outside of Baghdad and near the Abu Ghraib prison, where many political prisoners were murdered. The four, all killed in 2001, were cousins, aged between 27 and 35. "They were political prisoners," a family friend explains, "killed for no reason. There was no justice, no court, no defence."


The men have come on a bus and in a pickup truck. They carry with them flimsy wooden coffins made of boards and a black flag of mourning. At seven in the morning, they are the first family in the cemetery today.


The dafan, or grave digger, Muhamad Muslim Muhamad is a small man in sweat pants with a buttoned shirt tucked in. His obsequiousness and eagerness to assist provokes suspicion he is compensating for an unconfessed complicity in the crimes he helped bury.


Karkh is the size of a football field. It is surrounded by a brick wall two metres high, lined by eucalyptus trees. The ground is sandy grey, with mounds to mark the shallow graves of the bodies. Some of the mounds have holes burrowed into them, where animals have fed on the corpses. On a stick in the mound is a card with a number on it.


The al-Musawi family have the plot numbers for their dead, and Muhamad leads them to the first one, strutting over other graves. When they find Abdel Sattar’s grave, the men break down and begin sobbing, kneeling on the ground or clinging to one another.


Finally the gravedigger undoes his work as the men watch silently, as if still hoping the grave will be empty. The digging slows as the earth being removed becomes a wet dark red, as if blood stained. Muhamad abandons his shovel and starts using his hands. The body is the colour of the earth, thin and dry. Family members cry out, "My brother!"


The body is placed on a plastic sheet and wrapped in a kiffin, or white cloth. It is then placed in the wooden coffin, to await the trip to Najaf, where it will be buried in the City of Peace, the biggest cemetery in the world outside of China, and the preferred burial site for all Shias.


As Abdel Sattar’s brothers and a handful of others remain by his coffin, the rest of the family moves on to find the other bodies: Salah Hadi, Salah Hasan, Saad Qasim and a family friend, Qasim Ahmad al-Maliki. By nine in the morning six families have arrived to reclaim their loved ones and their wailing cries can be heard from all corners of the cemetery.


Husayn Sayer Naama al-Musawi, from Thawra, is 29 years old. He was in the Saddam city security prison with the four al-Musawi cousins. He was jailed for seventy days in July 2001, on suspicion that he might know something. In 1991 Sattar’s relative Daghir Jasim al-Musawi tried to escape to Iran following the failed Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein. He came to see Sattar before fleeing, a visit which caused all the suffering that befell their family.


Eleven men from the al-Musawi family were arrested. In prison they tied Husayn’s hands behind his back and hung him from them, dislocated his shoulders and tortured him with electricity. They beat him with cables and metal rods until he was drenched in his own blood. They wanted to know why Daghir had come to visit him, but he had only come to see Sattar. Husayn claims he could recognize the faces of the security officers who did this to them, including a drunken officer named Abbas who did the beating and an officer named Hamid who carried out the executions. "If I saw them I would seek revenge," he says.


Some graves have no numbers, so some families will never find their loved ones. The al-Musawis did not know if their lost sons were dead or alive they received the information from a remarkable organization called the Jamayat al Sujuna al Ihrar, or the association of free prisoners.


Located in the confiscated riverside villa of a former security official in the Kadhimiya neighbourhood of Baghdad, the Jamaya, as it is called, was formed three weeks ago. Muhamad Jamal Abdel Amir, a 28-year-old engineer, volunteers along with fifty or so others. He explains that it was created by four former prisoners. It is an entirely Iraqi project and they receive no help from outside and have not coordinated their activities with anyone outside Iraq. When Iraqis looted the headquarters of the many security organizations that had terrorized them for so long, they began handing over the files to the Jamaya, and its director, Ibrahim al Idris.


On the external walls of the Jamaya are many sheets of paper with alphabetical listings of prisoners’ names. Hundreds of desperate relatives run their fingers down the lists taped to the walls, hoping to learn their fate.


Inside, past the two boys with machine guns who guard the Jamaya, there is a busy bustling air as workers rush back and forth, their faces blocked as they carry immense piles of documents to different rooms of the house, organizing them by subject. They are in the process of entering all the information onto a database, but for now, the dozens of rooms are full of thousands of files going back to the 1960s, stacked on top of each other, stored in sacks, or still in their original file cabinets, marked Dawa (a banned Islamic party), Communist, and similar indications of Saddam’s ruthless repression of all independent political activity. New files continue to come in by the thousands from all over Iraq.


A random file reveals that Sadiq Hamudi Salih, born in 1960, was a soldier accused of joining the Dawa party in 1981 and criticizing the regime. In 1984 he was sentenced to five years in prison. Another file reveals that when authorities could not find Madhkur Salim Mishish they executed his relatives in 1984. Yet another file documents the execution of sixteen people.


The volunteers at the Jamaya do not seem bitter. There is an electric mood as they uncover the truth behind the past few decades of their lives, and provide their fellow citizens with closure, or at least some answers. While many Iraqis were engaging in an orgy of looting and destruction, these volunteers demonstrated that a sense of community, a shared past of suffering and perhaps a better shared future are possible in Iraq.


Nir Rosen is a foreign correspondent based in Baghdad.