Iraqis struggle to identify ISIS victims' remains
Over the past three years, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) executed hundreds of Iraqis in areas under its control, dumping their bodies in mass graves that make it hard for their families to locate and retrieve their remains.
Mosul resident Issam al-Taie told Diyaruna he saw images of his brother's execution in an ISIS video, and that the tragedy of his violent and untimely death has been compounded by the difficulty of finding his body.
ISIS transported the bodies of those it killed to hospital morgues in Mosul in a manner devoid of respect for the deceased, he said.
The bodies would then be buried in mass graves "without consideration for making sure that the head and body were buried in the same place", he added. "Seeing ISIS desecrate the bodies of victims in such a manner was very painful."
Fadel al-Gharawi, who serves on Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights, told Diyaruna that according to official estimates from Ninawa health agencies, 741 decapitated bodies were found in the province.
"This figure does not reflect the complete tally of ISIS victims, as there are 1,723 officially reported victims of the group’s killing machine," he said.
This is in addition to hundreds whose fate remains unknown and who may be buried in dozens of mass graves in Ninawa, al-Gharawi said.
Unidentified mass graves
Eyewitness reports and anecdotal evidence provided by members of the Iraqi forces points to the existence of further mass graves containing the unidentified remains of the beheaded or dismembered victims of ISIS, al-Gharawi said.
"Identifying mass graves happens according to a legal framework that includes gathering information and opening an investigation," he explained.
Once an investigation has been opened, the authorities can begin the process of exhuming the graves and identifying the victims, so their remains can be returned to their families, he said.
The exhumation of a mass grave occurs in stages, Health Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Rudaini told Diyaruna.
"First of all, an official report for the existence of such a grave site [must be submitted], and this prompts the creation of a joint committee from the ministries of health, interior and defence," he said.
This committee is charged with identifying the location of the grave site, he said.
After this has been done, a forensic team is tasked with "unearthing the bodies and professionally retrieving them, so they can be transported to the Department of Forensic Medicine in Baghdad", he continued.
There, a DNA examination will be conducted, he said.
'A challenge to the government'
The location of mass graves, and the exhumation and identification of the victims buried therein, "will continue to pose a challenge for the government", said Ninawa provincial council services committee member Hosam Eddin al-Abbar.
There is no up-to-date legislation that addresses the issue of missing and unidentified individuals, he told Diyaruna.
"The only legal framework in place is outdated legislation that allows families to obtain death certificates for their missing loved ones if their fate remains unknown and their bodies are missing four years after they were reported missing," he said.
Al-Abbar called for international support to help Iraq to undertake and expedite the process of exhuming mass graves, noting that this is a humanitarian issue.
Many victims await discovery in yet unopened mass graves throughout Ninawa province, he said.
These include a site near Mosul known as al-Khafsa, where ISIS executed and dumped the bodies of possibly hundreds of detainees, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a March 2017 report, HRW said it had learned from multiple witnesses that the bodies of those killed, including those of Iraqi soldiers, had been thrown into a naturally occurring sinkhole about eight kilometeres south of western Mosul.
Local residents said that before pulling out of the area in mid-February, ISIS laid improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at the site.
"This mass grave is a grotesque symbol of ISIS’s cruel and depraved conduct – a crime of a monumental scale," said Lama Fakih, HRW's deputy Middle East director.