Silent No Longer: Iraqi People Reveal the Past
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 27, 2003 For the first time in decades, the Iraqi people can talk openly about what happened during Saddam Hussein's regime.
They're talking, and the world is listening.
Each day, U.S. and coalition officials in Iraq hear more and more about the atrocities that occurred over the last two decades, according to Sandra Hodgkinson, the Coalition Provisional Authority's director of human rights. Whether they're Kurdish, Sunni, Shiia or Christian, she said, "it seems like every Iraqi has a story."
"In some way, the regime affected their day-to-day life, either someone they knew, or loved or cared about," Hodgkinson said this week during a telephone interview from her office in Baghdad. While many Iraqis seek out the Human Rights Office, she said, others talk to coalition military forces, nongovernmental organizations staff or provisional authority personnel.
"Everybody that is interacting with the local Iraqis is inundated with these complaints," Hodgkinson said.
Several Iraqi employees at the Human Rights Office in Baghdad take summaries of past atrocities from Iraqi victims.
"When they want to come in and tell their story to somebody," Hodgkinson said, "we allow them to sit down in an office and talk about what happened, or we give them a summary of past abuse form that they can fill out." One purpose of the form, she said, "is to get information that may be useful at some point in a future, Iraqi-led, justice system for crimes against humanity."
The Iraqis describe missing loved ones. They talk of torture and executions. They tell where the bodies are buried.
"To date, we have had reports of over 80 mass graves, and we have confirmed the existence of over 20 where we're sure that it is a mass grave, that there are bodies in there," Hodgkinson said.
The human rights specialist is from the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (a href="http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/">http://www.state.gov/www/gl obal/human_rights/. She is also a Navy Reserve judge advocate general officer with the International and Operational Law Unit at the Pentagon. She's worked as a military prosecutor and an instructor in crimes against humanity issues through the International Military Education and Training program.
Under the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998, defense officials provided some war crimes and crimes against humanity training at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies in Newport, R.I., for the Iraqi opposition. "I was the course coordinator and an instructor for that program," Hodgkinson said, "which early on, got me working with Iraqi opposition in areas related to crimes against humanity, human rights protection and how to investigate and preserve evidence of these crimes."
In her civilian capacity, Hodgkinson has participated in the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, and about two years ago, she spoke at a Human Rights and Transitional Justice seminar arranged by the Iraqi National Congress in London. In February she began working with the Defense Department's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, deploying first to Kuwait and then to Baghdad on March 16.
With all her experiences over the years, Hodgkinson has heard numerous stories about what was going on inside Iraq. Even so, she said, "you can't possibly imagine what it would have been like to be an Iraqi under Saddam's regime until you actually walk out to one of these sites and see the marks of bulldozing at the bottom of the pit from 10, 15 years ago - where they specifically dug a grave just to throw bodies in it. And to see bullet holes in skulls. To see blindfolds over their eyes. To see ligatures holding their hands behind their back, and handcuffs, and to hear the local witnesses' stories."
Visiting the gravesites has been overwhelming, Hodgkinson said, particularly where the local people have rushed out to the site, trying to find any remains of their missing loved ones.
"It is just heart-wrenching to see them sobbing, lying there - men, women, children, entire families - just trying to find something to help them reconcile with what they've been through. It's really, really very moving. It's proof that everything we've been hearing about for years is absolutely true and possibly at an even higher level than what we'd expected."
Coalition officials have been getting daily reports of mass graves in neighborhoods, villages and towns throughout Iraq, Hodgkinson said. Military officials do preliminary investigations and determine whether further inquiry is warranted. In some cases, coalition forces secure the site, pending further examination.
"We try to verify as quickly as possible whether or not there is, in fact, a mass grave, and what's the likelihood that something could happen to the grave in the short term, if we don't maintain a presence or cordon it off," she said.
"For the past six weeks now, we've had a forensic assessment team in from the United Kingdom," she added. "We brought them in to help not only do initial site surveys and initial assessments, but also to help advise us on our overall graves strategy."
The team has been creating "forensic protocols," she noted, "which are standards that every forensic team that comes in to assist in the exhumation process will have to live by in all the graves around the country. It was most important to make sure that this is done in a systematic way so that the identifications that are done and the evidence that is pulled from these graves can actually be useful in the future."
The British team has done initial assessments at many of the graves in the Baghdad area, Hodgkinson said. Coalition officials will use the team's input to help prioritize where they'll send full forensic exhumation teams.
"We've been contacting many of our coalition partners to explore the possibility of getting donor exhumation teams," she said. "Given the sophisticated level of expertise necessary to do this, we're going to need all the forensic teams possible."