Exhumation of Mass Graves in Iraq: Considerations for Forensic Investigations, Humanitarian Needs, and the Demands of Justice

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Eric Stover, William D. Haglund, Margaret Samuels
Publication Date
August 6, 2003
Publication Type
Journal Article


Across war-torn Iraq, Iraqis have begun to reveal the horrors of nearly a quarter century of repressive rule. Former political prisoners have led journalists and human rights investigators to prisons where torture and summary executions reportedly were routine. Municipal grave diggers, shepherds, and farmers have publicly disclosed the whereabouts of mass graves believed to hold the bodies of those who disappeared during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Lacking adequate forensic expertise and in the absence of international assistance, Iraqis have been exhuming some of these graves in a manner that prevents forensic identification of most of the remains and possibly brings greater mental anguish to the relatives of the deceased. For example, in May 2003, at 2 sites located near the Mahawil military base just north of the southern Iraqi city of Hilla, villagers used a backhoe to dig up more than 2000 sets of remains, gouging and comingling countless skeletons in the process, while some families used their hands to dig for bones and shards of clothing and carted them away in wheelbarrows and buckets.