The Battle to Unearth Iraq’s Mass Graves

Thousands of Yazidis slaughtered by the Islamic State are awaiting exhumation. But a row between Baghdad and Erbil has left them in the ground for more than a year.

Members of the Yazidi minority search for clues on February 3, 2015, that might lead them to missing relatives in the remains of people killed by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, a day after Kurdish forces discovered a mass grave near the Iraqi village of Sinuni, in the northwestern Sinjar area. A peshmerga lieutenant colonel said the grave containing the remains of about 25 people was found during a search for explosives that IS often leaves behind, posing a threat to security forces and civilians even after they withdraw. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Yazidi minority search for clues on February 3, 2015, that might lead them to missing relatives in the remains of people killed by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, a day after Kurdish forces discovered a mass grave near the Iraqi village of Sinuni, in the northwestern Sinjar area. A peshmerga lieutenant colonel said the grave containing the remains of about 25 people was found during a search for explosives that IS often leaves behind, posing a threat to security forces and civilians even after they withdraw. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

SINJAR, Iraq — A middle-aged man sporting a bushy moustache grins widely into the camera. Hassim, 31, carefully slides his finger across the screen of his phone. The man with the moustache is replaced by a smiling teenage boy, casually leaning on the handlebars of his blue bike. “My family,” says Hassim, a member of Iraq’s Yazidi community. “They’re all dead.”

He was working elsewhere in Iraq in August 2014 when the Islamic State entered Sinjar, an area in the north of the country close to the border with Syria and Turkey. Tens of thousands of Yazidis — members of a 4,000-year-old religion the jihadi organization was determined to wipe out — fled their homes only to become trapped in the Sinjar mountains. In and around the town, Islamic State fighters kidnapped and killed thousands of Yazidis — a massacre the United Nations and United States have described as a “genocide.”

Sinjar was largely liberated from the Islamic State by the end of 2015. Since then, authorities have found more than 30 mass graves, which are estimated by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to hold over 1,500 bodies. The human remains are key to identifying thousands of missing Yazidis, allowing the community to determine the fate of their loved ones and begin the processes of healing and closure.

But who exactly has been buried in the graves remains unknown — the exhumation is yet to start. And so Hassim’s loved ones lie in pits beneath the ground that his community has called home for centuries.

When will he be able to bury them with dignity? “I really have no idea,” Hassim says, shaking his head. “We have become part of a political game in which even our dead are not respected.”

The question of who bears responsibility for exhuming the graves has become a political football in Iraq. It highlights how political rivalry leaves recaptured areas in the country near-ungovernable and blocks reconciliation.

The scene of the crime

“The longer we wait, the less remains of the bodies,” says Fawaz Abbas, the deputy head of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Iraq, from his office in Erbil. The organization, which is based in The Hague, helps governments worldwide find and identify missing people, often as a result of armed conflict, and has been active in Iraq for years. But in Sinjar, the ICMP has been limited to surrounding the grave sites with iron fences that bear a sign that reads: “Warning: Mass Grave Site.”

It’s not our fault, Abbas says. His organization and local experts have been on standby for more than a year to get started on the exhumation, but have been held up by a lack of government approval.

There are potentially profound legal consequences to this delay. The number of graves, the causes of death, and the victims’ ethnicity are essential details to demonstrate in court that the massacre against the Yazidis amounts to genocide. “These sites are crime scenes,” Abbas says.

However, the question of who will lead this forensic investigation is up in the air. Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and its law system does not contain provisions for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. For the purposes of evidence gathering and prosecution, human rights organizations are pushing the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the KRG to come up with a clear legal strategy to deal with the Islamic State’s atrocities before exhuming the graves.

But as the Islamic State — a common enemy — loses strength and territory, old grievances between these two sides are increasingly bubbling to the surface. In Sinjar, Baghdad and the KRG are bogged down in a dispute over which side is the legitimate authority — and the graves of the massacred Yazidis are caught in the middle.

Territorial dispute

Baghdad and the KRG have fought side-by-side against the Islamic State, but a conflict over land continues to fester behind the scenes. Iraq has never formally delineated the border of the Kurdish region. While an article in the constitution was meant to clear this up through a referendum, political wrangling has thwarted the process. “The implementation of that constitutional article has been dead for years,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.

Despite the dismal status quo, both parties consider it unthinkable to relinquish their claims on disputed areas. For Baghdad, the rationale is simple. “Iraq, which is in charge on paper, does not want to give away a single piece of land,” Hiltermann says. “That would create a precedent.”

The KRG, meanwhile, has managed to significantly expand the territory under its control during the war against the Islamic State, including oil-rich Kirkuk. KRG President Masoud Barzani has no intention of returning that land. Later this year, Barzani says he will hold a long-delayed referendum on independence for the Kurdish region. It remains unclear if disputed territories such as Sinjar will be included.

On paper, Sinjar should fall under Baghdad’s control, but in practice the Kurds are in charge. To make matters more complicated, control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the area is contested by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rival Kurdish organization that has refused to leave Sinjar since it helped halt the Islamic State advance in 2014. Tensions between the factions have flared recently. In April, Turkey launched airstrikes on PKK-backed fighters, killing several Peshmerga fighters.

As a result of this confused situation, the recovery operation in Sinjar has stalled and the area remains in ruins. “Neither ​the Baghdad ​government ​​​​​​nor the Kurdish regional government wants to invest large amounts of money in the region, and as a result there is ​utter ​decay,” Hiltermann says.

The mass graves have become a bargaining chip in the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil. Whoever is in charge of the mass graves is legally in charge of the disputed territory — or at least a step closer to creating facts on the ground. 

Shady dealings

“We don’t want Baghdad to lead this process. That time is over,” says Barawan Hamdi, a high official at the KRG’s Ministry of Martyrs. “Sinjar is our area and therefore our responsibility.”

In order to open a mass grave, Iraqi law stipulates that a committee must grant permission. Such a committee has been created by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but it has been impossible to reach a consensus over the judge who would oversee the process.

The Kurdish authorities have proposed that “their” judge, Aimen Mustafa, take charge.

“Yazidis belong to the Kurdish people, and many of them are in our [refugee] camps in the KRG,” says Hamdi, making a case for why Erbil has to take the lead in the exhumation. “Baghdad has more capacity, but they have not done anything so far.”

The KRG has had trouble conducting exhumations unilaterally. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that a KRG research team overseen by Mustafa had made an unauthorized exhumation, transferring 65 bodies to a mortuary in the Kurdish city of Dohuk. Mustafa admitted to the human rights organization that the excavation was “not so professional.”

That isn’t stopping the Kurdish authorities from pressing their claim that they are the rightful authority to lead the exhumation. The KRG, Hamdi says, has pushed for calling the Yazidi massacre a genocide and supported the 2015 report that Yazidi groups submitted to the International Criminal Court, urging the court to open a preliminary investigation. It has also set up a committee and a center in Dohuk to gather witness testimonies about the atrocities in Sinjar. KRG troops have conducted several rescue missions to bring back kidnapped Yazidi girls and women

The federal Iraqi government is unmoved by these arguments. According to officials in Baghdad, the appointment of Mustafa is legally impossible because he is a representative of the Kurdish judiciary.

“We are willing to work with any judge,” says Dhiaa Kareem al-Saadi, who leads the Martyrs Foundation, the Iraqi government body in charge of mass graves. “But how can we appoint somebody who doesn’t even work for us?”

The Kurdish officials in Erbil, Saadi says, “want to use this case as a confirmation that this is their land and to benefit their international reputation.”

Baghdad has put forward its own judge to lead the committee — a member of the High Judicial Council, as Iraqi law requires. The proposed judge hails from Mosul, the capital of Ninewa province and one of the Islamic State’s former strongholds. The Kurdish authorities, however, have rejected that option, saying the judge has no support in the region.

Meanwhile, the bickering has left Saadi frustrated. His team of specialists has been ready to get to work for more than a year. But it is impossible to impose one’s will on a disputed territory where Baghdad has no de facto power. “Even if an Iraqi judge gives permission to start with the exhumation, we cannot get to work without cooperation from the Peshmerga in Sinjar,” Saadi says. “They control access to the area.”

As the political spat continues, it becomes less clear who is blocking what. The ICMP has brought both parties to the table three times, to no avail. The Kurdish authorities have sent a letter to the Iraqi Parliament, asking it to appoint Mustafa to the Higher Judicial Council through a change in the law. The fate of the request remains unclear.

Left in the dark 

Meanwhile, little information about the stalled exhumation of the mass graves reaches the Yazidi community. “We are being told not to interfere,” says a Yazidi student from Sinjar who lives in a camp in Duhok. “Yet we see the genocide evidence evaporating in front of our own eyes.”

Yazda, a Yazidi support organization with an office in Duhok, has also been left in the dark. The organization has mapped the mass grave sites and is gathering witness testimonies, but it says it hasn’t received any update about the exhumation for months now. “People who have lost their family members are asking us what is going on, but we just don’t know what to tell them,” says a puzzled employee.

Hassim, along with thousands of other Yazidis, have also been left with little to do but continue to flip through photos of their missing loved ones. For him, the mass graves do not represent evidence for a future war crimes tribunal, but his only hope for uncovering the remains of his disappeared family. He doesn’t care whether Baghdad or Erbil helps to unearth them; for him, that’s a choice between two evils. “Many parties have claimed to help us Yazidis, but at the end of the day it is always their own agenda that drives them,” he says.

Hassim sees no future for his people in Iraq and is getting ready to leave — hopefully for Germany. There is just one task holding him back: saying goodbye to his dead family members through a burial with dignity. When does he expect to finish this final duty? Hassim puts his phone down and shrugs.

He’s setting his sights on more modest goals. “Just as long as they start.”

Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Eva Huson is an Erbil-based independent journalist who covers war, aid, and migration issues.

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