After a decade mourning begins

13 May 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

The First Marine Expeditionary Force came face to face with the horrors of Saddam Hussein's ruthless rule as they helped Iraqis cope with the uncovering of a mass grave here.

After more than ten years, whispers of mass killings turned into cries of anguish as Iraqis began gathering around an open field left unused by farmers for years.

As Iraqis test their newfound freedom, evidence of mass killings are beginning to come to the attention of coalition forces all over Iraq.  For I MEF members based at Babylon, it was a simple decision to help Iraqis try and make sense out of this tragedy.

"This is the scene of a crime," said Dr. Rafed Al Husseini, a local physician who is directing the recovery and identification of the victims.  "These people were killed because Saddam heard that they supported the Americans after (Desert Storm)."

Out of respect for grieving family members and because the field is a crime scene, the Marines decided to offer their services but allow local residents to direct how they can be used.

"No American forces were used to recover any of the bodies," said. Navy Lt. Jeff G. Gerken, officer in charge for the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15, Air Detachment, a Reserve Seabee unit based in Kansas City, Mo. "We have the equipment and the technical resources to assist them in whatever way they need."

His Seabee unit has been lending its technical support and its heavy construction equipment to support the local volunteers who are sorting through a field of bodies trying to find loved ones who have been unaccounted for many years.

Once local religious authorities decide how to best serve the deceased and their families the Seabees will go to work leveling the ground to Iraqi specifications for a memorial site.   

"We will not leave here until you are satisfied," said Gerken to Hassan Al Mousawi, an Iraqi civil engineer who is volunteering his services at the mass gravesite.

For the Marines and Seabees, this is not business as usual.

"I expected to be building runways and roads," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Andy Green of Butler, Mo.  "You see this stuff on the news at home but you just cannot comprehend it, he had all of these people killed."

Ever since the murders took place the people of this rural village have lived in fear of saying anything.

"The farmers saw the men shooting," Mosaic said. "They have been too scared to tell anyone because Saddam would kill them too."

Being at the mass gravesite can be emotionally draining for some.  For others, anger swells up.

"It is hard to believe this can go on," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin E. Baugman, a heavy equipment operator with the Seabees.  "I just hope that this convinces some of the people back home that we need to be here."

Some Iraqis cry and beat their chest in mourning, others shout for revenge.  An interpreter describes shouts from one man begging for the chance to hang the murderers here and now.  Sensing that the disturbance could get out of hand, a member of the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of Iraqis who were trained by the American Military to help remove Saddam Hussein from power, addressed the crowd in Arabic.

"I need to interview eyewitnesses," said Dilshad Kittani, a volunteer who is acting as one of the Arabic translators for I MEF.  "The bad guys must be brought to justice."

As the Iraqi freedom fighter spoke the entire crowd drew in close to listen to his words.  Although many became quiet, one man continued his tirade against the killers.  Not convinced that anything would be done to avenge his relatives, a translator later stated that the man said that if the killers would not be hung today, he wanted to die.

"No one is going to die today," Kittani said.  "There has already been too much death here. You will live for them."

Still, Marine and Navy forces do what they can.

Aside from technical support from the Seabees, the Marines are also providing security at the site.  They also erected some camouflage netting to give families a shaded area to compose themselves and they even truck in fresh drinking water everyday. No matter how much support is offered, the gruesome discovery that a missing parent or child won't be coming home is a heavy burden for local families to bear.

"It is an understatement to say this is a stressful situation," Gerken said.  "This is an emotionally charged event."

The angry man in the crowd finally gives up and follows Kittani back to the area shaded by the camouflage netting in order for the freedom fighter to take his statement on what occurred on that fateful day.

"The man wanted revenge," said Kittani.  "I told him this is the beginning of a new Iraq. No revenge. We now seek justice."