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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
In Saddam's killing fields

By Stephen Sackur
BBC correspondent in al-Mahawil

The dry earth of al-Mahawil south of Baghdad is giving up its terrible secret, revealing things no human being should ever have to see.

Relatives search for bodies at al-Mahawil
It is the end of a long wait for some
Bodies dug out by a mechanical digger, decayed corpses which once had names, faces and families.

There is no easy way to say or to show what we saw here.

There were no international observers when we visited, just locals with paper and pen to record the grim toll.

"There were children, there are women inside the graves," said Dr Rafid Fakher Abdul Hasan.

"We found one of the women with her baby on her chest."

This horror dates back 12 years.

Saddam Hussein's disastrous military defeat in Kuwait in 1991 was followed by an anti-Saddam uprising by Shia Muslims in southern Iraq.

He crushed it with genocidal ferocity.

Executions

Officials tried to keep them back, but relatives of Iraq's missing generation were determined to pick through the dirt looking for evidence of lost lives.

They are steadily digging up Saddam Hussein's killing fields.

Excavation at al-Mahawil
Diggers have been turning the earth
The stench here is unbearable.

In a matter of minutes, I counted 200, 300 bodies pulled up from one pit alone.

And there are many other pits arranged around the fields.

The horror that we witnessed is simply beyond words.

How did all these people die? Well the evidence we saw suggested many were killed by a single bullet - executed.

Many are being identified by their rotting IDs.

The long wait

Sitting on the other side of the pit was Sahira Abdul Hassan, holding a bag containing the bones of her husband's best friend.

She's still waiting for her husband's remains.

"Saddam Hussein, killing is too good for him, I've been waiting for my husband for so long," she said.

Remains found at al-Mahawil
Few clues remain as to the identities of the dead

This is a crime scene of historic significance but there is no forensic investigation.

Human rights groups are pleading for international protection of the site but it just isn't happening.

A US marine major who also visited the site said the military did not want to intrude on people's grief.

"As you can see there a lot of evidence here," said Major Al Schmidt.

"They are not going to take all of it away. This man committed a lot of atrocities. A lot of these people.

"We are not going stand here and disrupt them from their mourning.

"We are going to come in here and deal with this as best we can and do what's best for these people."

Children in Iraq are seeing things which will scar them forever. Saddam's evil knew no limits.

Geography of graves

Hours after I left the site there were images still swimming around in my head. I suspect they won't go away - they will probably be with me for the rest of my life.

It is something I'll never forget. And I'm sure the same is true of the very few US military personnel there.

It's certainly true of the BBC team I was with.

And, of course, one can only imagine what it means for the Shia communities in southern Iraq - its people coming not just from local villages but from all over the region looking for their lost relatives.

And it's not just one site. There are other sites being uncovered all the time and not just in southern Iraq, but also in the north.

The Kurdish uprising was repulsed with equal ferocity by Saddam Hussein.

I was at another mass grave site this week - also in the centre of Iraq - where about 1,000 political prisoners appear to have been shot in the head, executed during the 1980s.

Evidence

This story is going to get bigger.

This period of accounting is going to take a very long time and there are serious questions to be answered, not least how the Americans and their coalition partners are going to protect the evidence.

Photographs can be taken, questions can be asked and answered and written down to create a record of evidence.

So when, and if, war trials take place people will have the evidence to hand and the perpetrators of this wickedness, this evil, are really made to pay the price for what they did to the Iraqi people.




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