Exhuming the Graves of Mahawil

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.”


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.


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.

Not long ago, Human Rights Watch estimated that, during his 24 years in power, Hussein’s regime executed 290,000 men, women and children. With the constant discovery of new graves, Bouckaert knows that number will, in the end, be much higher. Once, there was hope that many of those who had disappeared were being incarcerated somewhere. There were rumors of secret prisons. Perhaps the missing would emerge from them, alive and well, after the fall of Baghdad. But there are no secret prisons. Except for a tiny, impossibly lucky few, like Nasir, there were no survivors. The chasm left by that fact can only be filled by justice, says Bouckaert. At the gravesites, Iraqis speak to him about their desire for assistance. He says what they need is American experts and equipment to help them process and identify the bodies. And an International Tribunal — public, transparent — to work with their own justice system in the prosecution of those responsible. But Bouckaert has found that the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (the U.S. civil administration now in charge of Iraq) has little interest in getting involved in expensive, time-consuming justice.

I asked Bouckaert whether it would be possible to prosecute the men who had killed Nasir’s family and so many others. He said that the process of unearthing the mass graves must be slowed, and experts brought in. I told him of the captain at the gravesite who said that Iraqis really just want to re-bury the bodies on their own, and do it quickly. Bouckaert, who visits gravesites all over Iraq, said, “Then I am saying the Emperor has no clothes.”

Nasir made it back to Hilla. But people didn’t want to hear his story. They called it crazy or ignored him. There was so much fear. Up until the fall of Baghdad, Nasir felt paralyzed by the events of that night at Mahawil. His terror of being re-caught prevented him from working or doing much of anything. He never felt lucky to be alive, until now. His survival, and the truth about the events of 1991, have become very important.

When Nasir had finished his story, the room became silent. It was very hot. A man offered us all water from a pitcher. It felt hard, rude, to have to refuse the water. But the water would make us sick. We went outside, into a large crowd of people from the village. They all smiled and greeted us warmly. After so many years of remaining mute in regard to the disappearances, they are eager, driven, to speak. They believe that, now, the process of justice can begin. They have faith in the ability of the Americans to make this happen. A small mob of kids followed us to our cars. They gave us the thumbs-up sign and shouted, “Good! Good! Good!”

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