Forensic Investigations at Two Mass Graves, Ninawa Province, Iraq

Author(s): Michael K. Trimble

Editor(s): Stephen A. Chomko; Cathy A. Van Arsdale

Year: 2005


1. Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009 were the names used to designate two mass grave trenches near Al Hatra, Iraq. The Ninawa0002 grave site came to the attention of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 1988, and by 2000 the site was identified as “al Hadar” (al Hatra), due to its proximity to the nearby historical ruins. On 15 July 2003, the 31st Military Police Detachment Criminal Investigation Division (CID) began an excavation after human remains were discovered during earlier testing (Graziano, 2004). Personnel from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology carried out a forensic examination of the bodies that were recovered from the site. They concluded that this grave was the result of a mass homicide event. It has also been reported that after this investigation took place, Iraqi nationals attempting to retrieve remains for repatriation to Kurdistan visited the site. These visits have not been substantiated.

2. On 28 August 2004, a forensic team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, working for the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) began work at the Ninawa0002 site. Their excavations were completed and the trench was backfilled on 11 October 2004 (see project timeline in Introduction, this report). Ninawa0009 was confirmed as a grave on 12 September 2004 and was subsequently excavated beginning on 23 September 2004, the trench was backfilled on 10 October 2004. Only portions of the individuals in the two mass graves were exhumed and the individuals remaining were reburied at the conclusion of excavations. Analyses of the remains excavated at Ninawa0002 were conducted from 12 September 2004 to 13 October 2004. The Analyses for Ninawa0009 remains were conducted from 26 September 2004 to 17 October 2004.

3. A pathologist was unable to join the team in 2004. As a As a consequence, it was not possible to make conclusions regarding cause and manner of death. Work was suspended in November 2004 and a decision was made to complete all analyses early in 2005. A new team commenced work on 8 February 2005. Pathology examinations were completed for all 123 Ninawa0002 remains on 24 February 2005. Forensic examinations were completed on 18 Ninawa0009 remains in 2004 with the remaining 46 completed in 2005. The pathology for the 64 Ninawa0009 remains was completed on 10 March 2005.

4. The human remains initially recovered at Ninawa0002 were skeletonized. However, excavations soon revealed small amounts of adipocere in bodies that were below four or five layers of individuals in the northeastern portion of the grave (i.e., Cases 28 and 29). Excavation stopped with Case 120, as all of the remaining bodies in the ground had significant amounts of adipocere. Adipocere is a soap-like substance resulting from decomposition of soft tissue in the body. Adipocere formation is dependent on burial conditions and is facilitated by poor drainage and anaerobic conditions both of which were evident at Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009. There is no dependable relationship between the amount of adipocere formation and the length of time a burial occurs. Adipocere may appear as early as a few days following death (Gill-King 1997) but has also been seen in burials as old as 122 years (Manhein 1997). It is not particularly useful in determining the postmortem interval (Sledzik and Micozzie1997:485). For the burials at Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009, adipocere formation provided no useful information regarding the length of the postmortem interval.

5. Documents were found among the remains, resulting in 145 documents being cataloged by the Recovered Documents staff. Of these documents, 39 were with remains recovered by the CID investigation. The RCLO recovered 69 from the Ninawa0002 excavation, and 37 from the Ninawa0009 excavation. These 145 documents included personal identification cards, military identification and payroll cards, photographs, letters, and other personal items with annotations. Of these documents, 63 were personal identification cards. As report writing began, the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicated that 10 of these documents were related to individuals from the town of Sulaymaniyah.

6. Articles of clothing from Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009 were analyzed to determine ethnicity, age, and sex. At Ninawa0002, 80 cases of the 123 cases analyzed had traditional clothing indicative of Kurdish ethnicity. Additionally, 16 cases, which did not include traditional Kurdish apparel, did contain jewelry, religious articles or other cultural objects suggestive of Kurdish ethnicity. Based upon age-appropriate clothing styles, the clothing recovered from Ninawa0002 was associated with 76 females and 27 males, the clothing for the remaining 20 individuals was indeterminate. Among the females, the clothing suggested 36 adults and 30 subadults. The male clothing suggested 27 subadults with no adult males present. From Ninawa0009, all of the clothing was adult sized and distinguished by a complete absence of any feminine apparel. All 64 individuals wore a combination of Western-style and traditional Kurdish male clothing. The most common attire was traditional sharwal-style pants and matching jackets. In addition, nine individuals also wore pshten-style waist wraps, which are traditional Kurdish male clothing items. These characteristics suggest that all of the Ninawa0009 individuals were adult males of Kurdish ethnicity.

7. A comparison of personal effects, other than clothing, between the two burial sites showed different patterns in the types and quantities of items carried by each sex. At Ninawa0002, 1,161 objects were recovered from 53 of the 123 cases. These objects were mostly found associated with the adult females, and consisted of household items such as dinnerware, sewing kits, personal toiletry items, and medications. Jewelry was present in 57 cases, with religious nushta in another 11 cases. Jewelry, documents, currency, and nushta were found sewn into layered clothing of some individuals. Several cases included bundles of extra clothing tied in cloth or plastic bags, or knotted inside dresses. Among the men at Ninawa0009, all of the individuals wore multiple layers of clothing but had a minimal number of personal effects. Nine individuals carried identification media. Jewelry consisted of 11 watches and five rings worn by 13 individuals. 50 individuals carried small amounts of Iraqi currency. One individual carried a wallet, two individuals carried keys, and five carried medications. Religious articles were minimal, consisting of one possible prayer necklace and five nushtas.

8. Restraints were found with several of the individuals recovered from Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009. At Ninawa0002 restraints were limited to only eight blindfolds (about 7% of the total number of excavated individuals) and no gags or wrist restraints were identified. The situation was quite different among the men at Ninawa0009, where 47 (or 73%) of the 64 individuals had a blindfold or a gag, and some had both. In addition, wrist restraints in the form of rope ligatures were found with 48 (or 75%) of the 64 individuals excavated at Ninawa0009. 9. Geospatial analyses identified distinct patterns of disposal and burial within and between the two graves. At Ninawa0002, body orientation indicated differential treatment between adults and children and differential disposal within the trench suggestive that the individuals were treated systematically and methodically as the bodies were introduced into the trench. Body positions in some cases suggested that individuals were killed in the trench or along side of it. At Ninawa0009 body position also suggested differential disposal techniques within the trench, strongly suggesting that there were at least 5 separate groups of individuals bound together by “chains” of rope ligatures. Body conformation was less patterned in the Ninawa0009 gravesite than at Ninawa0002, probably a result of the differences in trauma inflicted on the individuals in the two graves.

10. Forensic anthropology analyses were conducted on the skeletal remains of 187 individuals excavated from the two graves. These remains represented samples from each trench. The Ninawa0002 sample represented approximately 41% to 58% of the estimated trench content, whereas the Ninawa0009 sample represented approximately 66% of the estimated trench content. Thus, these samples represent a considerable portion of the grave total and are consequently expected to be representative of it. The osteological analyses indicated that the Ninawa0002 demographic profile was dominated by adult women (n=27) and numerous subadults of indeterminate sex (n=96). The sub-adult component ranged in age from unborn fetuses to adolescents. Ninawa0009 consisted of 64 adult males, all of them osteologically identifiable as males, with the exception of one individual who was indeterminate. They ranged in age from individuals in early adulthood through to older men. Most Ninawa0009 men were in their middle adulthood.

11. A high frequency of perimortem trauma was recorded for both samples. Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009 exhibited 110 and 335 incidences of perimortem trauma respectively. The greater majority of these were recorded as projectile trauma consistent with gunshot injuries. Two different trends of trauma type and location were observed. Ninawa0002 individuals were most likely to have received a single, low velocity, projectile entering at the back of the head. The evidence suggests that the weapons were fired at close range. Ninawa0009 individuals tended to exhibit multiple cranial and postcranial injuries inflicted by high velocity projectiles. The 64 individuals analyzed exhibited an average of approximately five projectile injuries each. Since forensic anthropological analysis focused on skeletal material it is likely that the total number of injuries reported is a minimum figure.

12. Material from the Ninawa0002 and Ninawa0009 sites discussed above was documented using a variety of methods designed to insure the security and integrity of all evidence. Project documentation recorded descriptive information and analyses, and tracked the movement of evidence. Databases were maintained for encrypted digital images and for archiving data from forms. The culmination of all documentation created during the analysis was organized in individual case files. These files contain all field documentation, including written evidence pertaining to chain of custody, transferring custody from field to laboratory. Internal tracking was managed in the laboratory to monitor movement of evidence within the facility. All laboratory documents were compiled in the case file by subject matter. The sections include anthropology, cultural objects, recovered documents, radiography, pathology, and digital imaging. Case files were reviewed by personnel for accuracy throughout the process. File security was paramount. As the final step in this process, the original case files were forwarded to the RCLO Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq and a security copy was sent to the US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Cite this Record

Forensic Investigations at Two Mass Graves, Ninawa Province, Iraq. Michael K. Trimble, Stephen A. Chomko, Cathy A. Van Arsdale. Mass Graves Investigation ,Vol. 1. St. Louis, MO: US Army Corps of Engineers Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, St. Louis District. 2005 ( tDAR id: 425583) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8NG4SSN

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Spatial Coverage

min long: 41.056; min lat: 34.724 ; max long: 43.89; max lat: 37.178 ;


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