Finding Justice In Iraq
|by Gregory Paw||
Spring 2006, Vol. 69, No. 1
In connection with the IST, our staff investigated several major crimes under Saddam Husseins regime. Perhaps the largest, in terms of number of victims, was the Anfal of the late 1980s. The Anfalfrom the Koran meaning the spoilsinvolved military campaigns against civilians in thousands of tiny mountain villages in the Kurdish region. Husseins forces rounded up men, women and children in these villages and forced them into resettlement camps and terrible prisons miles from home. More than 180,000 victims were murdered and left in remote mass graves. One of our most difficult tasks involved exhuming some of these mass graves. Our first project, at Hatra in the Ninawa Province in northwestern Iraq, unearthed a killing field holding as many as twelve mass graves. We conducted thorough forensic exhumations of two of these graves. One contained almost 200 women and children, all killed with single gun wounds to the head. The other contained about 180 men, bound together at the wrists and raked down with automatic weapon fire. The images still haunt me. The graves also held many identification cards and artifacts buried with the bodies. These cards proved invaluable, giving the victims names and faces. We planned to take the cards back to villages and determine how the victims disappeared. We could not imagine what awaited us on these trips. Many of the victims were from villages near the beautiful Dokan Lake. These villages cannot be found on maps; they simply are too small, amounting to nothing more than a cluster of families. When we traveled to these villages, we saw a life not of this century. The mud shacks built into the mountain sides had no running water, much less electricity or telephone. Life revolved around a communal well and small mosque. In fact, when Husseins forces attacked villages, they often first destroyed the mosques, signaling that the locals would have no reason for returning. Thanks to the identification cards, we found family members of many victims. These members told us how, during the Anfal, people would be herded to relocation centers, while others would simply disappear. We managed to put together a tremendous evidence book against Saddam Hussein including eyewitnesses to his murderous ways. I felt significantly safer in the Kurdish region than in the rest of Iraq, and trips there presented chances to enjoy their culture. The Kurds welcomed us with open arms. Children would approach us with sweets and gifts as we walked through the colorful markets of the two leading Kurdish cities. We saw beautiful carpets, every type of nut and date, lovely fruit carts filled with countless colors, and clothes ranging in style from the latest western wear to traditional Kurdish fashion. We saw people getting haircuts, people having suits pressed and teenagers teasing each other. It was great to see because it represented what all of Iraq could be like some future day. Considering the difficult times the Kurdish region experienced in the not-so-distant past, we knew the dream of a peaceful and democratic society could become real if given the right conditions. Of course, none of us labored under the illusion that this transition would be easy or quick, but life in the north gave us hope and provided very nice memories of time in that area. A Regime of Terror
The first trial that Saddam Hussein faces arises from events in Ad-Dujayl, a small town sixty miles north of Baghdad, where a political party opposed to Hussein had flourished. In July 1982, a small group of them tried to kill Hussein as he passed through town. The attempt failed, but a shaken Hussein retaliated with a rampage against the town and its residents. Hussein used the force of his internal intelligence agency (then run by his half-brother) to round up the towns men, woman and children. School children were removed from classes; even pregnant woman were led away. Many were killed on the spot, and at least 140 others later were executed without trial. Still more spent years in dank prisons without even a hearing. Husseins forces also leveled large parts of the village and chopped down prized local date trees, eliminating the possibility of a harvest for years to come. This damage is visible still today. Hussein even ordered Ad-Dujayl removed from maps, changing its name to Al FarasThe Horsemana favorite image Hussein held of himself. We initially had few leads in investigating these events; then we received a great break. An experienced prosecutor from the Manhattan District Attorneys Office happened to be a captain in an Army reserve unit stationed near Ad-Dujayl. While meeting townspeople, this prosecutor found witnesses to Husseins crimes there. A chance lunch conversation between one of our lawyers and a military officer familiar with our work brought us in contact with a treasure trove of evidence. We soon had IST investigators in Ad-Dujayl meeting with these witnesses. Scores of brave people in Ad-Dujayl were willing to talk with us, despite the risks these meetings carried. Because the town lies in the heart of the Sunni triangle, our work there was dangerous for our staff as well. We were guarded by the prosecutors men, a colorful group of New Yorkers who told us about missing their favorite coffee shops in Bedford-Styvestant and longing to see their families at the holidays. One man kept a small calendar by his armored vehicles door, with a smudge through each day spent in Iraq. I always felt safe under their care and made sure they knew their role was critical to our mission. Accomplishing even simple tasks in Iraq presented amazing complexity. A drive of a few miles to see a witness could require days of planning, the presence of heavily armored military escorts and coordination of many other support elements. Longer missions, involving Blackhawk helicopters flying only a few feet above the desert, required even more effort. We faced mountains of documents, mostly hand-written in Arabic and often scattered on floors of bombed-out buildings. But most frightening were the frequent attacks against our staff. Rockets bearing explosives came into our compound nearly every day. One of our lawyers, despite having been hit with shrapnel, bravely carried three injured Iraqis to safety during a mortar fight. Suicide bombers targeted our convoys. Indeed, our mass grave team was caught in a well-planned ambush, but fortunately escaped without serious injury. We all were armed and armored. Despite these obstacles, we found ways to do our work. The IST brought criminal charges within a year of its inceptiona remarkable feat in international law and considering the ISTs working conditions. And we had some incredible experiences, such as watching a group of Kurds parade the American flag onto a stage during a rally; standing by IST officials as they learned to stake independence in the Iraqi government; meeting countless victims of crimes who put aside fear so as to tell us their amazing survival stories; and, finally, seeing the pride of Iraqis showing us their fingers, marked with indelible purple ink after participating in democratic elections for the first time in their lives. I give my heartfelt thanks to U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan, who strongly encouraged me to accept this unique opportunity, and to my colleagues at the U.S. Attorneys Office who picked up my work in my absence. Finally, thanks to my wife and daughters, whose brave sacrifices allowed me to take on this task. It was an amazing experience I will never forget.