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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
In Iraq's killing fields
Archaeologist working in Iraq
Up to 300,000 bodies may be buried in mass graves

The stench of death does not scare Ian Hanson. He earns his living in killing fields.

The mild-mannered archaeologist from Bournemouth University has investigated mass graves in Congo, Guatemala, and Bosnia. Now it is Iraq.

He and his specialist forensics team - Inforce - were ordered into action by the Foreign Office after shocking footage on BBC News.

It is very important to see how a ligature is tied around bones

Ian Hanson, Inforce

Images of bulldozers were shown ploughing through grave sites in search of bodies, possibly destroying crucial prosecution evidence.

"We like to see the bodies in situ," Mr Hanson said, "because it is very important to see how a ligature is tied around bones to know whether or not the victims were executed here.

"When local people do the exhumations themselves, they may show you a cloth afterwards that looks like a blindfold, but if it is not still around the face, that would not stand up in a court of law."

Dangerous work

Ian Hanson was standing in his flakjacket in the middle of a sandy desert south of Baghdad.

The temperature was touching 50C and there was no shade for miles.

Ian Hanson
Ian Hanson's team found more than 70 suspected mass graves
Around him were the burly US marines who watch for possible guerrilla attack.

Another member of the team was taking geophysical soundings of the site. And two young women anthropologists were recording and laying out bones found on the sand.

"If this ends up being a crime scene," said one of them, "we cannot touch it. We can only look at what has already been disturbed."

Mr Hanson's team has now left Iraq after a month of investigations.

They arrived with a list of 27 suspected mass grave sites.

By the end they had confirmed more than 70. No-one knows how many bodies may be buried in them all. The best estimate is 300,000.

The 'disappeared'

Many international lawyers class Saddam Hussein's crimes as genocide.

His regime did not just murder people in the well-known campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as the "Anfall" campaign against the Kurds in 1988, and the barbarous suppression of the Shia uprising in 1991.

It murdered suspected opponents continuously, in every year he was in power.

It is rare to find an Iraqi family who does not mourn a "disappeared" relative.

It has to be clear to Iraqis and the world what is going to happen to justice

Johanna Bjorken, Human Rights Watch

Those atrocities were one of the justifications coalition leaders gave for going to war.

Yet some say little preparation has been made for prosecuting those responsible.

"There has to be a process," says Johanna Bjorken, researcher in Baghdad for the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch.

"It has to be clear to Iraqis and the world what is going to happen to justice, where the testimony is going to go.

"The coalition knew this was going to be a huge issue - securing evidence from well before the war. Their failure to be prepared is inexcusable."

Incriminating evidence

Random digging has now stopped at most of the mass graves. But there is no knowing when relatives will get impatient to find their loved ones and start again.

Ahmed al-Tamimi
Ahmed al-Tamimi is seeking information on his executed brother
And incriminating documents - the files of Saddam Hussein's secret police - are scattered across the country, often in private hands, after they were looted from burning ministries on the day Baghdad fell.

Ahmed al-Tamimi has a stash in his house in the small town of Musaib.

He is an Iraqi, recently returned from exile in the US, who is searching for information on his executed brother.

The documents do not relate to his case. They relate to other families.

But Ahmed says the authorities are not yet making any effort to gather any files in a central place - and no-one is handing them in.

"The trust is not so good between the Americans and the people," Ahmed says.

"In the beginning, they arrested people who are dangerous to their presence here. They did not arrest Baath Party members who killed Iraqis in 1991.

"But for our people, this is the priority because they killed our loved ones. People now are afraid."

Living with the enemy

Iraq's new governing council has announced that it will set up a commission to try officials of the old regime within the country. But no-one knows yet what the process will be.

In the meantime, Iraqis say mass murderers are still living in their midst. A few notorious suspects have even been captured by coalition forces and then released.

When people see the man responsible walking on the street, they feel the regime is still there, they feel nothing has changed

Judge Don Campbell

For now, the man in charge of justice in Iraq is the American Judge Don Campbell - a reservist general.

He told Crossing Continents: "I am not surprised people are frustrated. But if we face someone threatening the coalition we will arrest them first.

"If they are not an immediate threat we will arrest them second. But very often you do not get past the first priority because it consumes an entire day."

It is still early days. In Bosnia, it took years to bring war criminals to justice. But in Iraq, there is a growing impatience.

"No-one can live without justice," says Ahmed al-Tamimi.

"People did not just lose loved ones. They lost their future.

"And when they see the man responsible walking on the street, they feel the regime is still there, Saddam is still there - they feel nothing has changed."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 24 July, 2003 at 1100 BST.

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