The Last Epitaph

Ali Mohammed Yassim held a small scrap of brown paper torn from the corner of a paper bag in one hand, and a long-handled shovel in the other. With seven of his brothers and cousins, he had come to a rutted field just outside the yellow watchtower of what had been Iraq's most notorious prison.

Another brother had a brush, one had a broom, others had shovels, too. At their feet here in the Abu Ghurayb suburb of Baghdad lay what looked like a trash pit, about 10 by 30 feet. Scraps of corrugated roofing, twisted bits of machinery, window frames, garbage, paper trash were tangled together with torn bits of clothing. "We've finally found my brother," said Yassim. "I'm 100 percent sure he's here." And with that, the men pulled scarves over their faces and began gingerly digging in hopes of finding Yassim Mohammed Yassim, who may well have been Saddam Hussein's last victim.

Ali, 44, never let go of that little scrap of paper as they took turns digging; nor would he put it in his pocket. His brother Yassim, 45, had been an exile living in Syria, and was captured in early March returning to Iraq. "They searched him and they found his Thuraya," said Ali. Thuraya satellite telephones had been banned from Iraq, because they have GPS capability--in other words, they can transmit information on a person's location that is precise enough for an airstrike. Many Iraqis innocently had them because the phone system was so poor, and calling abroad was closely monitored. In Yassim's case, though, the Mukhabarat, or secret police, had found a real spy. "He was working for the Coalition forces," said Ali. "He wanted freedom for Iraq." He knew the risks he was taking, Ali added.

In a short time the men came to their first corpse, under a sheet of grungy plastic, with only a thin layer of dirt over it. The head was only a skull, but the clothing was intact and it didn't look like Yassim's. They moved to another part of the pit, and resumed. "Carefully, carefully," they warned one another. Respect for the body of a dead person is deeply ingrained among Muslims, who normally bathe and shroud the corpse and then bury the dead within a day if they can. Recovery of improperly buried remains is intensely important to them. Few things could be more repugnant and distressing than a mass grave in a trash pit.

The Yassims weren't the only ones searching the dumps around Abu Ghurayb prison earlier this week; around them half a dozen other families were doing the same thing, a scene repeated daily now. "You know what gets me?" said Walid Hussein, 52, looking for his brother Khalid, 48, who disappeared 14 years ago. "I was watching satellite TV yesterday and I saw a report on the animals in the zoo and how badly they were doing." Two of the lions had escaped and had to be shot by soldiers of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division. Zookeepers were furious. "And nobody is here helping us with this," said Hussein. "No Red Crescent or humanitarian organization, no one. We don't know how to do this, all the families are just in shock. How will we know when we find them?" So far, no one has even secured these burial sites, much less started systematically exhuming them. All most of these people know is that their loved ones showed up on execution lists found in various regime facilities, "hanged by the neck until dead at Abu Ghurayb prison."

Ali Yassim has a little more to go on than that. His brother Yassim was moved to that prison after interrogation at a military intelligence compound in Baghdad, according to a prison acquaintance who was there with him. As American troops approached Baghdad in early April, the authorities there stepped up their executions, not even bothering with hangings because they were too slow. Yassim was among a group taken outside to be shot at the edge of what the acquaintance said was a trash dump under the walls. There was a heavy bombardment nearing from the Americans' big guns, and the guards were in a hurry. Some of the prisoners managed to break and run; some were shot down, others managed to get away. The acquaintance saw Yassim shot, but he managed later to find Ali and tell his brother about it. Twenty-five minutes later, on April 4, American troops arrived at Abu Ghurayb to find an empty prison.

The Yassims unearthed nine corpses in all from this trash pit before they came to one whose clothes might have been Yassim's. They were too rotted to be sure. They brushed the dirt away from the skull with a piece of paper, and then one of the more distant relatives ran his hand over the top of it. "No, this one has hair on his head," he announced. Yassim did not. It was hardly cause for disappointment, just resignation. They carefully reburied each body they came to. "Over there we found 14 people, and over there another four," said Ali. The field was full of lumps of dirt, and what looked like trash sites; in between were deep trenches dug with backhoes, mass graves ready to throw people in, but unused in the haste of the guards' departure. "My brother was Saddam Hussein's last victim," said Ali. "But he killed 5,400,000 other people." Just how he came by that figure was not clear, but there was no debating it with him.

The eight brothers and cousins shouldered their shovels and pulled their scarves off their faces, climbed in an old Suburban taxi and drove on to another site in the vast fields around the prison. "I'm sure we'll find my brother today," said Ali. He held up the brown scrap of paper. "These men killed my brother," he said. The acquaintance had written two names in Arabic there. Ali insisted on sharing those names. "Tell everyone who they are," he said, "so they can be punished." He would only show the paper, not let go of it. It was so far the only tangible thing he had of his elder brother, Yassim Mohammed Yassim, a bald man of 45, survived by two wives and 10 young children. If they find him, his epitaph might be that he very nearly lived long enough to see the freedom for which he had risked everything.