By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The American military had set up a shade tent and was providing water for relief from the heat. I spoke to a captain about the military’s role concerning the graves. Would they, for instance, bring in forensic experts to help identify the bodies and to accumulate evidence that might be used for criminal investigation of the massacre? He said that the leaders in Najaf didn’t want that. Plus, he said, it would take too long — DNA testing and all that. The Iraqi people wanted to bury their dead and move on.
We met a reporter at the gravesite who had heard about a survivor of the Mahawil massacre — Nasir Hadi. The reporter was going to interview him and invited us to come along. Two public-radio reporters would also come, as would Peter Bouckaert, a war-crimes investigator for Human Rights Watch. We went in three cars to a nearby town called Hilla. We got out and walked down a narrow street, past a small houselike mosque. A dozen people followed us, then more people from the town. They greeted us warmly. We came to a small courtyard and were ushered into a room with a carpet and two couches. The men who had ushered us into the room introduced us to Nasir Hadi, a slim, ethereal-looking man who is 24 years old. He was wearing a long, white robe, a dish-dash. He shook hands with the other Americans, but it was clear he did not want to shake my hand, so I just nodded to him and greeted him in Arabic. Amjad told me later that he was probably shy, unnerved by what was most likely his first encounter with a Western woman. It would have been too strange for him to shake my hand. We sat on the couches. The room was very hot. When the radio guys asked the men to turn off the noisy fan, it got even hotter. Many men, neighbors, crowded into the room and the doorway. Children peered in through the window. In a quiet, halting voice, Nasir told us the story of how 12 years earlier, in one of the pits at Mahawil, he held tight to his family in the belief he was about to die. Amjad translated.
He heard the orders to shoot. He heard his mother’s last words. And then a loud, long burst of gunfire. Nasir, still blindfolded, couldn’t see anything. As soon as the gunfire stopped, he felt dirt being flung into the grave, onto the bodies. Nasir doesn’t understand it, but somehow he hadn’t been hit. He lay in the grave, in the dirt. He was able to breathe — the dirt wasn’t over his face. Ten or 15 minutes later, when it seemed clear to him that the killers had left, he took off his blindfold and crawled from the hole. It was very dark, the only light coming from a distant factory. Nasir began walking and eventually found a road. Some soldiers pulled over in a car and asked where he was going. He told them he was going to Hilla. They demanded to know why his clothes were bloody. He told them the whole story. They took him in the car and drove for a bit, then stopped at a canal where they pushed him in. They washed his clothes and him. They were just ordinary soldiers — not part of the secret police. They helped him. He was a boy.
In the spring of 1991, following a popular uprising against Hussein, tens of thousands of Iraqis disappeared into the earth the way Nasir’s family did. On March 5, 1991, Shiites in Hilla joined towns all over southern Iraq against Hussein’s regime. Their unlikely inspiration came from George Bush Sr., who, in a speech given on February 15, 1991, encouraged the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Iraqis heard this as a sign that the U.S. was ready to support, and even aid in, Hussein’s overthrow.
Word spread, and the response was tremendous, especially among low-level Shiite soldiers. The uprising became a nationwide revolution as towns in the South and the Kurdish North successfully overwhelmed Hussein’s loyalists. All told, Hussein briefly lost control of 14 out of Iraq’s 18 governorates. But the Bush administration, fearing that the uprising would lead to a Shiite Islamic state as in Iran, and under pressure from Middle East allies to stay out, promptly, thoroughly and devastatingly refused to provide any assistance whatsoever. In addition, the U.S. brokered a cease-fire with Hussein’s regime that gave it free rein to fly formerly restricted helicopter gunships. The ensuing bombardment of the Shiite and Kurdish-held towns quickly destroyed any chance of the uprising’s success. In the coming weeks, the regime brutally retook the entire country. And then the killing really began. Hussein’s secret police and Baath Party members rounded up and killed tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis during that period.
Many of the victims were soldiers like the ones who had helped Nasir. Others were just men, women and children walking along the wrong road at the wrong moment. For 12 years Iraqis have barely spoken of the disappearances. That kind of talk would have been too dangerous. The bodies of Nasir’s mother, uncle and cousin were not found at Mahawil. It is very likely that there are still many undiscovered bodies there. The massacres became what Peter Bouckaert refers to as a very successful campaign of terror: a form of shock therapy by a desperate regime.