Computer expert follows Saddam's genocide
SET in a dingy underground bunker in Baghdad’s super-secure ‘Green Zone’, the office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice does not look like the incident room of the world’s biggest mass murder probe.
Half-buried among coffee-cups and post-it notes, the rows of silver laptops look no different to any others. But as Kamaran Dash, a Kurdish war crimes investigator, switches one on, a pre-recording of a snarling Arabic voice hints at the sinister secrets stored inside.
It is that of Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan Al Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, secretly taped justifying the gassing and slaughter of thousands of Kurds in the 1980s. "Who is going to say anything?" he screams. "The international community? F*** them."
Kamaran hears al Majid’s words and shudders They proved correct at the time. The world condemned Saddam’s persecution of the Kurds and other acts of mass murder, but failed to intervene.
Now, with coalition forces finally set to hand Saddam and his henchmen into Iraqi custody, Kamaran and his colleagues are working to ensure that the cases against them will finally face punishment.
Although thousands of victims still lie buried in mass graves, the answers as to who ordered their deaths, and why, are slowly being dug out of the millions of documents left behind in secret police and Ba’ath party headquarters.
Stored by the ton in secure warehouses, they are being electronically scanned into digital records page by painstaking page.
Kamaran, a former exile who studied computing in the UK, has masterminded the database that will eventually document the crimes in minute detail.
As he manoeuvres a computer mouse around the laptop’s screen, endless grim categories and headings flash up: from ‘multiple killings’, ‘torture’ and ‘arbitrary arrest’, through to ‘medical experiments’, ‘enforced prostitution’, ‘rape’, ‘mutilation’ and ‘deliberate public humiliation’.
"We still probably missed some," he admits. "The system will never be perfect, but once it’s complete, we will be able to do a keyword search on somebody’s name, or an intelligence unit, and will come up with all the relevant information that was ever put on paper."
It is now 14 months since the discovery of Iraq’s first mass graves at Al Mahaweel, near Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, gave the first shocking hints of the true extent of Iraq’s state-sanctioned murder rampage.
Since then, forensic experts have identified a further 260 mass graves, some thought to contain several hundred bodies and others containing a dozen or less. Although the total number of dead is now thought to be less than last year’s initial estimate of up to 300,000, it still represents one of the largest acts of genocide of modern times.
Work to begin exhumations ground to a halt in April after military commanders told the teams of forensic archaeologists that they could no longer guarantee their safety against attacks by Saddam loyalists during site visits.
Unfortunately, while the contents of the mass graves would provide highly symbolic exhibits at any trials before Iraq’s new war crimes courts, such evidence is only circumstantial.
The real proof, pointing directly to particular suspects, is far more likely to come from analysing the paperchase of official records.
Saddam’s security forces were often scared to carry out crimes without written orders from above, and were then meticulous about keeping records as back-up afterwards.
"If we get some colonel telling us he had nothing to do with torturing people at a certain intelligence HQ because he was never based there, we can check all the correspondence from that place," said one coalition official.
"If we find a paper saying they ordered for two bulldozers to turn up to dig a hole in the middle of nowhere, then that will take some explaining."
Remarkably, there are also a handful of survivors from the mass killings at Hillah, where the Ba’ath party rounded up around 2,000 locals and machine gunned them into pits as part of savage reprisals for the 1991 Shia uprising.
One such man is Abdul Rahim, who somehow escaped the hail of bullets and clambered out from beneath a pile of at least 50 buried bodies when the executioners had left. He is among four locals now anxious to tell his story.
"I stood up covered in blood from others, and jumped up and down to make sure my legs weren’t injured, then I ran," he said. "When I saw the lights of a village, a group of dogs attacked me. Because nobody had came out from the houses, I thought maybe I was just a dead spirit and that only the dogs could sense me. Eventually, I took a coin out of my pocket and bit on it hard to see if I could feel pain. I could, and only then did I begin to realise I might still be alive."
But after a year investigating and documenting the atrocities of the Saddam years, coalition officials have also realised that the sheer scale of crimes committed is likely to vastly overwhelm the ability of the Iraqi courts to try them.
To ensure the many cases which don’t make it to trial are at least properly documented, justice office staff are setting up a $1m "oral history" project in which Iraqis will be invited to give tape-recorded interviews of the abuse they suffered.
"We are putting together a system whereby peoples’ stories can be recorded, partly to help identify perpetrators and missing people, but also just to get an accurate idea of the sheer numbers involved," said one coalition official.
The interviews, which could involve tens of thousands of witnesses, will be conducted by a team of 200 specially-trained Iraqis, among them lawyers, psychologists and journalists.
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