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More than 200 mass graves to be excavated in Iraq

09 November 2018

UN report warns of ‘horrors’ awaiting excavators, including bodies of women and children


Members of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps plan to retrieve the body of an 18-year-old man from a mass grave in Mosul’s old city, last year. The man was killed in a mortar strike, after escaping an ISIS held area

Members of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps plan to retrieve the body of an 18-year-old man from a mass grave in Mosul’s old city, last year. The m...

HUMAN remains fitted with suicide belts and vests, including bodies that have the appearance of women or children, are among the horrors awaiting those who have the task of excavating mass graves in Iraq, a UN report has warned.

More than 200 mass graves, “a legacy of ISIL’s terror”, have been discovered in territory once held by Islamic State (IS), the document prepared by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq and the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner suggests.

The graves contain the remains of thousands of victims, “the majority of whom may never be identified”, it says.

The largest numbers are located in the governorates of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar. It is estimated that they hold the remains of between 6000 to more than 12,000 victims from the period 2014-17, including women, children, elderly people, people with disabilities, members and former members of the Iraqi armed forces, the police, and some foreign workers. Twenty-eight have been excavated by the Mass Graves Directorate, and the remains of 1258 bodies exhumed.

The largest grave is believed to be the “Khasfa sinkhole”, south of Mosul, discovered on 24 February 2017, and believed to contain the remains of up to 4000 people. Mass graves have also been found across the territory that is home to the Yazidis. The government of Iraq has already executed 35 people associated with mass graves at Camp Speicher, an airforce base.

The report notes that, in areas controlled by Islamic State (IS), “thousands of civilians were killed and abducted, often in a systematic and targeted manner”: methods including “shooting, beheading, bulldozing, burning alive, and throwing persons off the top of buildings”.

A campaign of violence against religious minorities, including Christians, included “mass killings, rapes, kidnappings, detentions and mass abductions, torture and forced conversions, and the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities”. It is estimated that 3117 Yazidis remain in IS captivity.

It is believed that wells in one village in Salah al-Din, north of Baghdad, contain a number of victims allegedly killed and then dumped there in 2015.

The report outlines the duties of the government of Iraq under international law, including the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those accused of serious rights-violations, the search for the dead, and reparations for victims. Among the challenges facing those excavating is security: IS is still active in some areas, and explosive devices remain.

In Mosul, human remains have been located that are fitted with suicide belts and vests, “including bodies that have the appearance of women and/or children”.

“Meaningful truth and justice for the victims of the conflict with ISIL and their families requires, among many other aspects, the appropriate preservation, excavation, and exhumation of mass-graves sites, and the identification of the remains of the many victims and their return to the families,” the report says. “The promotion of truth, justice, and reparation with guarantees of non-recurrence will be critical to ensuring a full reckoning for ISIL atrocities. This in turn could contribute to lasting peace. Victims and their families deserve nothing less.”

In 2016, Minorities Rights Group International, documenting the barriers to the return of Christians to areas including Nineveh, included “the mapping of all the mass graves, supporting the relatives of victims, and conducting forensic analysis of remains” among its recommendations (News, 12 August 2016).

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