Exhuming the Graves of Mahawil 

Nasir Hadi tells of surviving the massacre and 12 years of silence

Thursday, Jun 5 2003
Photos by Murad Sezer/AP

On March 17, 1991, when Nasir Hadi was 12, he and his mother, cousin and uncle set out to visit Nasir’s grandfather. They left their small house in the town of Hilla and walked along the main road outside of town. Before long, they were accosted by some men from Saddam Hussein’s regime — perhaps military, perhaps secret police. The men took Nasir and his family to a school where they were handcuffed and interrogated. Nasir’s family had nothing to offer their interrogators. They had no idea why they had been picked up. They were never told. They stayed in the school for a day and a night.

The next day, more men, women and children arrived at the school. All were blindfolded, taken to what Nasir thought was some kind of military base, and kept in a hall-like room. Later, they were herded from the hall into vehicles. They were driven to Mahawil, removed from the cars and shoved into pre-dug graves. Everyone was crying, shouting. Nasir and his mother and uncle and cousin were all holding one another tightly around their waists. Nasir said he heard a voice yell, “Shoot them. Shoot them!” His mother said, “Now we are going to die.”


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I first heard of Nasir Hadi at the end of a long day spent at the site of the mass graves at Mahawil. Mahawil is a small village about halfway between Hilla and Baghdad, near Babylon. It was my second day in Iraq. As my translator, Amjad, and I neared the site, we turned off the main road onto a dirt track that followed a straight line through some fields. We drove behind two small beat-up buses. Everyone from the area who had relatives taken away during Saddam Hussein’s regime wants to go to the site. Buses are arranged. Many who go have found the remains of the person they are looking for. More haven’t.

Where the track ended, we left the car and walked past the pockmarked earth of the graves themselves. Large holes in bare ground. There were a few bits of ignored clothing in the holes. A dirty decaying sneaker. A torn piece of fabric from a dress. Beyond the holes was a flat area with a few hundred white and black plastic bags on the ground in a loose circle. Each bag contained what was left of a body. A low spiral of barbed wire ringed the circle of bags. Iraqi men guarded the circle. They had been recruited to keep order at the site by the head religious leader of Najaf — who is responsible for decisions regarding the Mahawil graves. They stood inside the barbed wire and prevented others from entering. But all around us were Iraqi men and women who badly wanted to go in. Old women sitting on the perimeter right outside the barbed wire, wearing their long, black abayas, were crying and rocking back and forth. Younger men stood and talked, got into arguments about who was to blame.

One man said to us that America knew how bad Saddam was all along, so why didn’t we do something sooner? We should have stopped him a long time ago, the man said. We were the ones who created him. Amjad told the man America wasn’t to blame. The Iraqis knew how bad Saddam was, that he was killing their families, and yet they still made up songs in his honor, still celebrated wildly on his birthday. The two shouted at each other, many other men were shouting as well, but not a violent sort of shouting. They were all just trying to figure it out. They wanted to know who to blame. They shouted their opinions, frustrations. They touched each other on the arm, the shoulder, to emphasize a point. This sort of debate would never have happened under Hussein.

For no apparent reason, the guards began to let people into the circle of bags. The crowd grew quiet and wandered around among the bags, stopping often to kneel down and examine contents. They tried to find a tiny sign that might help them make a connection between their long-disappeared relatives and the content of the bags. They very gently removed things from the bags and looked at them closely. A handful of long hair. A once-white shirt. A leg bone. The sole of a child’s shoe. Bones from a hand. A time-parched piece of paper. A flattened pack of cigarettes. A skull. Another skull. I watched one man remove a skull from a white bag and slowly turn it over and over in his hands. It was encircled by the remains of a striped cloth blindfold. ‰


On the drive to Mahawil, we had passed many cars and buses going in the opposite direction with coffins strapped to their roofs. When someone identifies a body, they take it to the Shiite holy city of Najaf for a burial ceremony. I saw a man walk away from the circle, carrying one of the bags as if heading home from the market. An old woman walked around and around, talking and crying. I asked Amjad what she was saying. “She is saying, ‘Where is he? Where is he? He’s not here. Where is he? Where are you?’” Thousands of bodies have been uncovered at Mahawil. The ones I saw that day were some of the unclaimed.

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