According to official estimates, the remains of at least 14,000 victims of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) are buried in mass graves across Iraq, and authorities continue to discover new burial grounds.
On December 18th, federal police found a mass grave in western Kirkuk province's al-Hawijah district.
The gravesite is located near Abu al-Jis village in an area locally known as al-Baeer forest in al-Abbasi administrative division, Kirkuk provincial council member Maan al-Hamdani told Diyaruna.
The burial site contains the bones and skulls of unidentified individuals killed by ISIS when al-Hawijah was under its control, al-Hamdani said.
"The exact number of victims that were buried in that grave is unknown, but according to our sources, the remains of no less than 70 people are buried there," he said.
Initial inspection of the site has revealed tattered clothing that indicates some of the victims were civilians and might even include women and children, in addition to military personnel, he said.
Metal wires also were found at the site, which the militants used to bind their victims before slaughtering or shooting them at close range, al-Hamdani said.
This grave is one of many discovered after ISIS was defeated and "reflects the barbarity of the group and the crimes they committed against the Iraqi population", he said.
Over 200 mass graves in Iraq
A UN report issued November 6th revealed that 202 mass graves have been discovered in Iraq, containing the remains of people killed by ISIS.
Most of these graves are located in Kirkuk, Ninawa, Anbar and Salaheddine provinces.
"The UN has notified the relevant local authorities to preserve the new gravesite and prevent tampering so as not to destroy any evidence that could indict ISIS," al-Hamdani said.
An official delegation from Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights, the Kirkuk intelligence agency and the Martyrs’ Foundation inspected the gravesite on December 20th.
Security and tribal forces found the grave site after torrential rains brought to the surface human remains that had been buried in a shallow pit, said al-Hawijah mayor Sabhan al-Jubury.
Al-Jubury told Diyaruna his administration notified government authorities and international organisations about the grave as soon as it was found, and an initial inspection was conducted.
"We are awaiting the arrival of specialist teams to exhume the grave and identify the number of victims, how and when they were killed and who they are, by conducting genetic testing of the remains," he said.
Unknown number of victims
ISIS killed civilians at random, al-Jubury added, especially those attempting to flee the territories it controlled or those who had served in the security forces.
"It is difficult to know how many lives were taken at the hands of these terrorists during their control over our cities," he said. "They killed their victims in cold blood and hid their bodies in unknown locations."
The al-Hawijah site is the most recently discovered mass grave, Independent High Commission for Human Rights spokesman Ali al-Bayati told Diyaruna, noting that "it is one of many unearthed mass graves".
The total number of victims is estimated to be around 14,000, he said, adding that it is very likely there are more gravesites to be found.
The remains of 1,258 victims have been removed from the 28 mass graves exhumed to date, four in Diyala, one in Ninawa and 23 in Salaheddine, he said.
Plans to exhume all mass graves
Al-Bayati pointed out that it is not an easy task to exhume a mass grave.
"Some of the graves are filled with landmines, and have to first be cleared before opening," he said.
"There is also a shortage of funds and local expert teams that can remove the remains without mixing them up or tampering with the crime scene," he said.
And then there is the need for genetic testing, which is used to identify the victims, he added.
The Iraqi government on January 4th announced it had put in place "a comprehensive plan to exhume all mass graves this year".
The exhumation of these sites is happening "according to international standards and in compliance with the Iraqi law to open mass graves", al-Bayati said.
To do this correctly, he added, the Independent High Commission for Human Rights, Martyrs’ Foundation, forensic medicine authorities, Supreme Judicial Council and local police must be on hand to conduct these operations.