- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

HILLAH, Iraq — A woman walks in the searing heat to a distant field full of slaying victims. She comes to pray for her son, who was put to death for taking part in a rebellion against Saddam Hussein. This enemy of the state was 11 years old when he vanished.

A crude pit full of dead people in southern Iraq has become the cemetery at which Karima Hassan Kathem, 44, can say prayers and shed tears. “I just can’t afford to put him in a proper burial place,” she said.

The rest of the world has a similar problem. No international agency or occupying power is eager to tackle detective work that may take a decade to finish and a fortune to finance.

In Iraq, nearly everybody has lost somebody, sometime. With the postwar discovery of up to 60 mass graves so far, some with hundreds of corpses, the populace is desperate to match names to remains in a culture that treats the dead with a respect often lacking for the living.

The U.S. and British militaries, the international Red Cross and some small humanitarian groups specializing in battlefield pathology have all been involved in a behind-the-scenes dispute: Should the dead be used as evidence for war-crimes trials, or should they be identified one by one and returned to their families?

Either task would be costly. Doing one might damage the prospects for performing the other, and accomplishing both might be prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible. Another option is to do little or nothing, as now.

The United States has deployed a British humanitarian group called Inforce, which specializes in collecting war-crimes evidence from massacre sites, to look at about 15 of the graves. If Iraqis request it, they are allowed to sift through the dirt, looking for loved ones.

“It’s a very delicate process,” said coalition spokeswoman Naheed Mehta in Baghdad. “If the local communities don’t want us to secure a site, we won’t.”

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross favors identifying the dead and returning remains to families. Yet the organization is torn internally over whether to take on a job that falls within its charter but might drain its resources.

“There clearly is a tension between retaining forensics evidence and returning the body” to the family, said Col. Ronnie McCourt, a British army spokesman in Basra.

In the meantime, Iraqis are digging through dirt and layers of rotting bodies to find tangible proof of their worst fears.

“The coalition people don’t have it together yet. I’m getting impatient with my own organization,” said Andres Kruesi, head of the southern Iraq office of the Red Cross in Basra.

“Minutes after you discover a mass grave, there’s a busload of people coming down to dig everything up. What these people are doing is making the bodies unidentifiable.”

The Red Cross sent a delegation from Geneva to Iraq this month to assess the situation. Marcus Dolder, the Baghdad-based head of its Iraq operation, was reluctant to discuss the “delicate” state of affairs.

What makes the problem so formidable is that Saddam’s regime fought three major wars and crushed two big rebellions over two decades. Beneath one layer of bodies is sometimes another.

Forensics experts say protecting massacre sites is the crucial first step of finding out who died, when, and how. The military says it is stretched too thin for that.

“Our first priorities are to maintain law and order,” said Lt. Eddie Foster-Knight of Britain’s Royal Military Police. “We have to be primarily concerned with the living.”

Coalition forces briefly staffed the Hillah site, roughly 10 acres surrounded by a trench and ringed with barbed wire, but no longer. Iraqis merely step through the loosely laid wire.

They have exhumed about 500 corpses, removed the clothing and other belongings, stuffed them in plastic bags, then reburied the bodies under hills of dirt. The plastic bags containing the bodies are placed atop the freshly dug-up burial mounds and secured with heavy rocks.

The hunt for the dead is obvious in city squares nationwide, which are plastered with photos and names of missing people. Considerable networking exists among a strongly interconnected society of extended families with tribal affiliations and religious allegiances. Many communities have set up their own site-identification offices to collect names of the lost and found.

The Red Cross recently drove a truck carrying satellite phones around the country, giving any Iraqi a chance to call anybody worldwide and speak for two minutes. It says 5 million people of Iraqi origin live abroad, and thousands of them were able to hear the voice of a relative for the first time since before the war.

Just knowing what happened to somebody has enormous personal impact in this long-oppressed society.

When Karima Hassan Kathem’s two preteen boys were arrested for taking part in the 1991 Shi’ite uprising, she spent the ensuing years trying to find out where they were held.

“I left no stone unturned,” she said. “I went to that prison and this prison, and I finally learned they were executed.”

After this year’s war, a mass grave near the town of Najaf was discovered. A neighbor of Mrs. Kathem was among the first to search it. He found the remains and identity cards of his father. He also discovered the rotting remnants of some of his neighbor’s relatives, including Mrs. Kathem’s oldest boy, 12-year-old Thaer Tarklan Kathem.

Mrs. Kathem spent the last of her savings to bury the boy in Najaf, a Muslim holy city. Then another mass grave was found outside Hillah, where she lives.

The same neighbor hurried to search it and found the ID and skeletal remains of Mrs. Kathem’s younger son, 11-year-old Raed.

He would have been 22 now, but his mother doesn’t know how long he lived. Or how long she must mourn him at the scene of his killing until she can afford to have him reburied elsewhere.

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