Witness to Genocide

by Heather Pringle, Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009

Forensic archaeologists uncover evidence of a secret massacre—and help convict Saddam Hussein of crimes against humanity.

In May 1988, a prison guard checked Taymour Abdullah Ahmad's name off a list and directed him to a bus idling in the Popular Army camp in Topzawa, southwest of Kirkuk. The camp was one of Iraq's grimmest prisons. During his month-long internment there, the 12-year-old Kurdish boy watched guards beating male prisoners senseless with lengths of coaxial cable. He had seen four children weaken and then die of starvation. He stood helplessly as a guard stripped his father to his undershorts and led him off to his death. So Taymour was not sorry to see the last of Topzawa. He did not know that the paper in the guard's hand was an execution list.

The buses idling in the prison courtyard looked like ambulances. But this, Taymour soon discovered, was a cruel illusion; inside, they were squalid mobile prisons. The boy, his mother, and two younger sisters were forced into a dark air compartment that reeked of urine and feces. There was no toilet, no food, no water, no way out. The only ventilation came from a small, mesh-covered opening. By the time the bus pulled out, 60 or so frightened passengers--mainly Kurdish women and their young children--were crushed together in the stifling heat.

After more than 12 hours of travel, the bus bumped to a halt in the desert near the Saudi Arabian border. Taymour stepped into the cool night air and noticed at once that their bus, along with the 30 others in the convoy, had parked next to a large, shallow pit. Before he could take this in, however, a soldier pushed Taymour and his mother and sisters over the edge. Gunmen began firing. "When the first bullet hit me," Taymour later recalled, "I ran to a soldier and grabbed his hand." He had seen tears in the man's eyes, and instinctively reached toward him, hoping he would pull him out. But an officer watching nearby issued a command in Arabic, and the soldier shot Taymour. This time the boy fell to the ground, wounded in the left shoulder and lower back. He played dead until the gunmen moved away, then crawled out of the open grave and set off into the darkness. Several hours later, he reached a camp of Bedouins who took pity on him, hiding him in their tents.

Taymour told this story in 1992 to Human Rights Watch, which was investigating the treatment of Kurds in Iraq. Ethnically and linguistically distinct from the country's Arab majority, the Kurds have long sought independence from Iraqi rule. Moreover, a small number of Kurds follow an ancient religion known as Ezidi. To advance the separatist cause, some Kurds sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988. Their defiance infuriated Saddam Hussein, who feared losing control over the rich oil fields of northern Iraq's Kurdish region. So in 1988, Hussein's government publicly announced a campaign to crush Kurdish resistance. They dubbed it Anfal--The Spoils of War--the title of the eighth chapter of the Koran, which records revelations received by Muhammad after his first victorious battle over non-believers. By characterizing the Kurds as infidels, Iraqi officials hoped to rouse support in the Muslim world for their genocidal campaign.

Anfal proceeded with terrifying precision. Iraqi aircraft first dropped conventional bombs and chemical weapons on unsuspecting Kurdish villages; ground attacks followed, driving the survivors to collection points situated near main roads. Paramilitary and military forces waited in secret to gather up the terrified families and bus them to army camps and temporary holding centers. Seven months later, in September 1988, the Iraqi government announced the end of Anfal and declared a general amnesty for anyone who had sided with Iran during the war. By then, however, some 100,000 Kurds had vanished without a trace and around 2,600 Kurdish villages lay in ruins.

What happened to all the missing Kurds? In the early 1990s, Human Rights Watch sent a team of researchers to Iraq to discover their fate. The eyewitness accounts and Iraqi secret police documents they gathered suggested that the country's security forces had massacred thousands, and Human Rights Watch hoped that some nation would bring charges of genocide against Iraq in the International Court of Justice. None did. But after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's new government began looking into crimes of the former regime. A team of American Marines journeyed across Iraq, recording some 230 probable mass-grave sites. One lay close to where Taymour was rescued in the southern province of Muthanna.

Investigators also pored over captured Iraqi government documents. Some contained detailed plans to round up and slaughter "subversives, agents of Iran, and similar traitors to Iraq" in the Kurdish zone. The documents, including signed execution orders, implicated seven senior Iraqi leaders in the mass murder of Kurds: Saddam Hussein; Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti, better known as Chemical Ali, who drew up the plans for Anfal; Sultan Hashem Ahmed al-Ta'l, military commander of Anfal; Tahir Tawfiq al-'Aani, governor of Mosul, a city with a large Kurdish population; Sabir abd al-Aziz al-Douri, director general of Iraq's military intelligence; Farhan Mutlaq al-Habouri, head of military intelligence in the Kurdistan region; and Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti, deputy chief of operations for the Iraqi forces.

But a survey of mass graves and a stack of government documents were not enough evidence to meet the requirements of the International Court of Justice. To convict someone of a crime against humanity, Iraqi prosecutors needed to demonstrate that the accused willfully killed others as part of a systematic attack against a civilian population. And to convict on the charge of genocide, prosecutors had to show that a defendant intended "to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such." The legal system needed clear proof that the Iraqi death squads targeted Kurdish civilians and systematically exterminated them. This meant locating the bodies of women and children massacred by Iraqi forces and showing that the slaughter was systematically organized by government forces.

To clinch their case, prosecutors needed to put a team of highly skilled forensic archaeologists and anthropologists to work excavating some of the country's mass graves.

In a desolate stretch of the Hajara Desert in Iraq's Muthanna province, Sonny Trimble crouched down, eye level with a 7,000-pound trackhoe bucket. At his signal, the operator angled it gently into the ground, shaving off a half-inch layer of sand. The two men had been at this work for nearly an hour on a sweltering April morning in 2005. With each pass of the bucket, Trimble strained to hear the sound of metal scraping against bone--the prelude to a grave. So far, nothing. But as the bucket edged past, he spied a small tuft of black, then a swatch of brilliant orange, emerge from the ground. He stopped the trackhoe and crawled over for a closer look. Sticking out of the sand were pieces of a woman's black dress and a flaming orange sash.

The 52-year-old Trimble was a civilian archaeologist in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the chief curator of the corps' extensive archaeological collections. Over the years, the U.S. Army called upon him to undertake several difficult and sensitive missions. Personnel from his team had traveled to Vietnam to recover the remains of American soldiers, and he had assisted the Kuwaiti government in its search for the bodies of more than 600 civilians kidnapped by the Iraqi army during its 1991 flight from Kuwait. In spring 2004, Trimble received a phone call from a lawyer working in the Department of Justice, asking if he would head a major investigation of Iraq's mass graves. The enormous project would require the forensic excavation of hundreds of victims and detailed analysis of evidence in a secluded laboratory in Iraq.

Crimes against humanity are usually investigated during peacetime, when researchers can exhume bodies from mass graves patiently, without fear of attack or reprisal. Iraq, however, was spiraling rapidly into civil war. Car bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes, and kidnappings grabbed daily headlines around the world. A Western forensic team working for months at a mass-grave site would present a large, stationary target for insurgents. No one could guarantee the safety of the team, but Trimble, who had worked under these conditions before, understood the risk. He accepted the mission. "I was really interested in assisting the Iraqi people," he recalls.

In America, opposition to the war in Iraq was mounting. To deflect criticism and win popular support, the White House wanted Americans to see how Iraqis had suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime. This meant proceeding as quickly as possible with a series of major criminal trials. To facilitate this, the U.S. Congress allotted $128 million for criminal investigations in Iraq and created the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) to assist Iraqi prosecutors. Already, prosecutors had opened the books on three major atrocities: the slaughter of some 150 men in the village of Dujail 40 miles north of Baghdad, the death-squad executions of Shiite men, and the disappearances of Kurdish civilians during Anfal. For Trimble, the first order of business was to excavate mass graves suspected of containing Kurds. Muthanna was one of these.

Trimble visited the Muthanna site for the first time in March 2005 with RCLO senior staff and a regional security expert from the U.S. Embassy. Together, they decided that convoying the forensic team each day to the site from the nearest military base, 17 miles away, posed too great a risk. "People had started putting IEDs on everything, and we wouldn't have made it," says Trimble, a slender, likable man with a deceptively low-key manner. So he and Wade Ricard, a logistics expert and heavy equipment operator, designed a mobile field camp. The RCLO hired 135 private security contractors to guard the camp and its supply trucks.

Meanwhile, Trimble's field director, Susan Malin-Boyce, helped assemble gear and prepare the field team in Baghdad.

Please read this article in full at the Archaeological Institute of America