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Unearthing brutal history

Thousands of people have set out to find family members who disappeared under Saddam Hussein's regime. For many, the search ends at a cemetary.

Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 6, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In a cemetery outside Baghdad, 16-year-old Marwan Ali is digging up secrets of Iraq's horrific past.

The shovel is nearly as big as Ali, whose growth has been stunted by malnutrition. But he, his brother and a friend work quickly, unearthing first a skull, then leg bones from a crude grave marked only with a number.

After just 15 minutes, the entire skeleton lies on, not in, the sandy dirt. No. 424 has become Abas Razaq, a store owner who disappeared nine years ago after someone claimed he had insulted Saddam Hussein.

"We went to places where we thought he was jailed, but there was no sign of him," said Razaq's cousin, Karsam. "We didn't know anything about him until now."

The fall of Hussein's regime has closed one chapter in Iraq's recent history, but it has opened another for the many Iraqis whose husbands and sons, fathers and brothers were executed for political reasons over the past 24 years. As they discover records of the regime's atrocities, families are learning when their relatives died, how they were killed and where they were buried.

For families like Razaq's, there is the comfort of knowing a loved one will finally get a proper funeral.

Razaq, who was 29 when he disappeared, lived in Babylon, near the ruins of the ancient city fabled for its hanging gardens and soaring tower. Married and the father of four, he was an ex-soldier who ran a small grocery.

In 1994, Razaq went to a party and drank too much. According to others who were there, he asked, "Who is this party for?" When told it was in honor of Saddam Hussein, Razaq announced he wanted to leave. Either an informer or a member of the Mukhabarat - Iraq's dreaded secret police - overheard the comment.

"They made a big issue of it, saying he was against the regime," his cousin related. "He was drunk - that's why he said what he said."

Razaq was dragged off, never to be seen again. His family searched for him in vain until Hussein's government fell this month and Iraqis began swarming through government buildings, Baath Party offices and hundreds of other places where records had been hidden. At Baghdad's Yarmuk Hospital, someone found a list of men who had been hanged by the regime. On it was the name of Abas Razaq.

"Then we were told to come here to the cemetery," his cousin says. At al-Karkh Cemetery on Baghdad's western outskirts, there was another list. This one had the names of all those interred and the number of the grave site. The family located Razaq's grave and paid Marwan Ali and the other youths 1,000 dinars apiece - about 35 cents - to unearth his body.

Judging from what was left, Razaq had been dumped in the hastily dug grave wearing the clothes in which he was arrested. Karsam and other male relatives put the remains in a plain wooden coffin and carried it out of the cemetery, past dozens of other newly emptied graves.

"There is no God but Allah," they chanted. "There is no God but Allah."

Nine years after his death, Razaq would be taken home to Babylon, for his remains to be wrapped in a simple white cloth in accord with Muslim custom. Then he would be buried in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, his cousin said.

At last, Razaq's family would find some measure of peace knowing what had become of him. But for other Iraqis, the search is just beginning at a mansion on the Tigris River.

There, at the former home of Gen. Sufian al-Tikriti, one of Saddam Hussein's cousins, thousands are poring over handwritten lists of names from records being found all over Iraq.

From dawn until dusk, they come, trampling the grass in what once was an elegant courtyard and pressing against the rose bushes to get a closer look at the lists taped to the wall.

There are two brothers, looking for the father who has been missing since 1991.

There is a woman, whose 21-year-old brother, a soldier, disappeared in 1986.

And there is Samia Abdul Karim, whose six sons were arrested in 1980 and haven't been seen since.

Karim, 63, is clad in the black robe and headscarf of a Shiite Muslim, a sect long oppressed by Hussein's Sunni regime. She says her sons were praying in a Baghdad mosque when they were accused of belonging to the Daawa Party, an outlawed Shiite organization, and taken away.

They were her only children.

Hung over the entrance to the three-story mansion is a new sign proclaiming "Community of Free Prisoners." Comprising volunteers who were political prisoners themselves, it is scouring Iraq for records and bringing them here so relatives can hunt for missing loved ones.

In the quarter-century that Hussein held power, his intelligence services compiled detailed dossiers on millions of citizens including students, suspected dissidents and Kurds displaced to northern Iraq as part of his "Arabization" program.

As the war drew near, the regime hid records everywhere from private homes to the subterranean storage areas of souks, traditional Arab markets. The prisoners organization has brought in truckloads of file drawers, which now fill one large room and most of the multicar garage in the mansion al-Tikriti fled as American troops approached Baghdad.

Some of the files themselves are curiously attractive. Information is gracefully hand written on large white pages bound together with green yarn, like a child's school project.

The prisoners group has found other gruesome relics of Hussein's regime: a British-made traction bed modified to administer shocks; and films of the notorious "Chemical Ali" personally carrying out executions.

Once power is restored to the area, volunteers plan to computerize the records so they can be copied and distributed throughout Iraq. In the meantime, men and women run their fingers down the seemingly endless lists, both hoping and fearing they will see a familiar name.

Zara Abbasi 45, is looking for her brother, missing since 1981. Before the Americans began bombing, an Iraqi army officer told her he was still alive.

"I can't tell you anything more because I will be executed," he said.

Does Abbasi think her brother could have survived more than 20 years in one of Hussein's notorious prisons?

"God only knows," she says, and keeps searching the lists.

- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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