| A woman cries over bags containing the remains of her daughter at the site of a mass grave in Mahawil, Iraq. (AFP)
Mahawil (Iraq), May 14 (Reuters): Iraqi families wailed with grief today as they picked through piles of bones at a vast mass grave, their relatives among up to 15,000 people reported missing in the area during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
People searched for faded identity cards or other clues among the skeletons to try to identify brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and even children who disappeared when Saddam’s government cracked down on a Shia uprising in 1991.
Some locals reported hearing gunfire from the site near the farming community of Mahawil, about 90 km south of Baghdad, in that year.
“We saw buses bringing people here daily during May and April, 1991 and at night we heard the gunfire,” said Said Jaber.
Others residents said they saw trucks full of corpses drawing up at the site, which may be one of the largest of a string of remote mass graves uncovered since US-led forces ousted Saddam last month.
Desperate for a conclusion to more than 10 years of worry about the fate of their loved ones, some people claimed remains on the basis of scraps of evidence: hair, a sandal, even a packet of cigarettes. Bushra Jabbar, 43, was so overcome by grief that she threw the dirt from which her mother and sisters were dug up over her own head, as if to bury herself with them.
“Here they are. These are the bodies of my mother and my two sisters,” said Jabbar, sitting in the dirt and wailing as she saw the workers dig up the remains of the bodies. “I recognised my mother from her long plait and her golden jewellery.”
She said she identified her two sisters by their clothes and the shape of their jaws as well as their jewellery. “They came and took my mother in March 1991 to question her about her husband, my stepfather, who was an army deserter. She never returned,” she said. “We hoped that they were in prison and we hoped that America would come and free them.”
Araya Hussein carried the remains of her husband away in a bag. “He went missing in 1991 when we had 10 children,” she said. “I thought he was a prisoner and would one day come home. I never imagined I would be carrying his bones home.”
Others silently studied scraps of clothing or items such as wallets, eyeglasses and even an artificial leg among the bones.
As an earthmover scraped heaps of rich brown earth from the site, bones protruded from the dirt. Once extricated, skulls and what looked like the bones from the rest of the bodies were heaped into crumbled piles or stuffed into plastic bags.
Clothing hung from the bones. Some skulls were cracked. Some of the remains were clearly those of children.
”I believe my brother and father have been buried in this place,” said one aggrieved man who did not give his name.
”Saddam's security forces came to the house to get them one day in 1991.”
Rafid al-Husseini, a local Iraqi doctor trying to organise the retrieval, said more than 3,000 bodies already had been unearthed in seven days of digging and many more could be found.
Husseini estimated between 10,000 to 15,000 Iraqis had been reported missing in a large swathe of the region south of Baghdad, but, with the gruesome search still under way, it was not clear if all those unaccounted for were at Mahawil.
”The most important matter for Iraqi people now is searching for missing relatives,” Husseini said.
He said some 1,500 bodies had been retrieved by families and unidentified bodies would be buried in a separate cemetery.
CONCERN OVER IDENTIFICATION
Many families stood silently behind a ring of barbed wire coils separating them from the excavation to try to preserve the site but others walked through the piles.
There were no forensic experts present and human rights groups fear that evidence of atrocities could be lost forever.
Peter Bouckaert from Human Rights Watch told CNN he had just spoken to a man who took away remains he claimed were his brother solely on the basis that a cigarette packet found nearby was the brand he used to smoke before he disappeared.
”The tragedy is that the way these graves are being exhumed...will not provide final answers for a lot of the families because these bodies will not be identified.”
U.S. Marine Major Al Schmidt promised to help but said the military had to be respectful of the Iraqis who had suffered, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.
”This man (Saddam Hussein) committed a lot of atrocities [but] we are not going to stand here and disrupt them from their mourning,” he told the BBC.“We're going to come in as best we can and do what's best for these people.”
Since Saddam's fall in the U.S.-led war on Iraq, mass graves have been unearthed in Najaf, Basra, Babylon and other areas and are still being found as Iraqis feel free to recount tales of arrests, torture and killings once too risky to tell.
The human rights group Amnesty International has said it has information about 17,000 disappearances in Iraq over the past 20 years but that the actual figure may be much higher.
”These are the remains of my son, I recognised him from his clothes. Nothing remains of him but his decayed bones,” said Ghaniya Hussein, 63, as she put the remains in a bag.
”He was so handsome and so healthy. But look, nothing left of him.” (Writing by Christine Hauser, editing by Philippa Fletcher)