Mourning in Iraq

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Iraqis exhume the remains of political victims of Saddam Hussein's regime outside Baghdad

The wailing at Mohamed Sakran Cemetery woke up more than the dead. In a walled section of the sprawling facility outside Baghdad, families of Iraq's missing had come to solve mysteries buried by years of oppression. They shoveled and jabbed at low mounds of sandy earth, digging just three feet down before uncovering their worst fears: the remains of young men arrested — for as little as flocking to a religious rival of Saddam Hussein — and never heard from again.

On April 19th, Rashid Kokas pulled back a dirty white cloth from a skeleton believed to be his brother, Bashar. "No one says, no one knows," he cried, the universal chant of mourners denied information about loved ones disappeared into Saddam's Gulag. A follower of radical Shiite cleric Mohamed Al Sadr, Bashar was arrested on July 1, 2000 and accused of seditious religious activity. Rashid says that after bribing guards he learned his 30-year-old brother had been hung. Pressing for confirmation, Rashid was told to back off or face the same end.

"We never knew where he was buried," Rashid moaned, closing the casket and hoisting it with pallbearers who repeated, "No one but God." The body will be reburied in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

Random brutality was a staple of Saddam's Iraq. Their recent freedom from it means Iraqis can begin to come to terms with their personal losses. Baghdad, filled first with rejoicing, then recriminations, after Saddam's fall, has shifted now to bearing witness. People gather at prison gates to review their life inside, a diet of torture and starvation. Shiites describe the secular indignities imposed by Saddam. And families of the missing wander from prisoner welfare groups to empty government offices in search of answers they dared not ask when the Sunni regime was still in power.

The shallow graves of Mohamed Sakran were discovered by chance. Files found in Baghdad's notorious Section 5 prison listed the names of executed prisoners and numbers of their graves. Notified by an inmates' group, families immediately traveled to the cemetery, 25 miles west of Baghdad in the city of Al Hawsa. What they found, tucked in a well-kept conventional cemetery, was a rectangular field twice the size of a gridiron. A cinderblock wall blocked off the space. High above it were watchtowers apparently manned by guards to keep out unauthorized visitors.

Staggered less than two feet apart were 909 mounds marked by tiny yellow signs bearing a number. Hundreds of other plots had no markers.

Last Saturday's mourners were linked by loss. The names of their relatives were listed in a file of 18 young men executed May 13, 2001, according to family members. The dead were friends who worshipped together at a mosque in East Baghdad and followed the teachings of Al Sadr, an anti-Saddam cleric assassinated in 1999. None were said to be members of banned organizations. They were arrested between May and July of 2000.

The exhumation created a macabre scene. Matching numbers with gravesites, clusters of 10 to 20 relatives and friends each watched a male member of the family dig. Women, covered in black chadors, shrieked in he background.

"My brother, You don't know how long you've been underground," screamed an elderly woman. After nearly three years, the family of Hassan Saber Al Atabi had given up hope of finding him. On May 17, 2000, after returning from a prayer session, Atabi was arrested. His family went to the prison to seeking information about Hassan, 25, a laborer who had a wife and children. Officials warned them not to tell anyone about Hassan's disappearance. "He was guilty of nothing," said father-in-law Kasim Bin Wan. "Saddam kidnapped a man from his wife."

The executions were preceded by grisly bouts of torture, according to family members who visited the arrested men in prison before their deaths. Rasheed Kokasv said his brother was forced to watch guards rape a woman prisoner, an acquaintance of his. Adnan Yaser, 22, received electric shocks to his genitals, according to his uncle, Aessa Bedan Sahee. "When we saw him, he already was finished," said Sahee. "The government was watching us, so we couldn't tell anyone about this or we would've been arrested ourselves."

The world is anxious to see how the Americans who toppled Saddam's regime will shape the future of this country. But many Iraqis, still deeply wounded by their trauma, are hard-pressed to let go of the past.