Digging Up A Grisly Past

For nearly two decades the military vehicles moved in and out of the camp at Qaryat al-Marrajah in the middle of the night. From their homes in the sandy wastes alongside Habaniya lake, the villagers could hear the gunshots, but none of them dared approach the compound.

They knew that the fenced-off complex was a training ground for the National Security College, an institute that produced agents for the feared Iraqi security service known in Arabic as al-Amen. "We felt that it anybody got close to the camp, he would have been shot," says Ismail Sabbar, 50, the chief, or mukhtar of Qaryat al-Marrajah, sitting on the floor of his home with a dozen of his neighbors. "We didn't go to them and they didn't come to us. We were scared."

Now the villagers are afraid to approach the camp for a different reason. Across a field of hardpacked earth, through a decrepit chain link fence, lies a grisly testament to a regime's brutality: a 20-foot long, 10-foot deep trench, excavated last week by a U.S. military forensics team. Experts believe that it could be part of one of the largest mass graves yet discovered in Iraq. Scraps of bone and bits of clothing protrude from hard earthen walls; at the bottom of the trench, a clump of twisted, disintegrating fabric mingles with femurs, plastic sandals, and eight skulls--several bearing neat holes in the back or the temple. NEWSWEEK has learned that the Iraqi informer--believed to be a member of the intelligence apparatus-- who led U.S. authorities to the site said the trench runs for hundreds of yards and could contain as many as 4,000 bodies. So far, however, fewer than a dozen bodies have been found, and no evidence has yet been presented to substantiate this single witness's allegations.

The 100 residents of the Sunni Muslim village of Qaryat al-Marrajah lived alongside this apparent execution ground for years without knowing what lay beneath the earth. Now many are asking themselves how they could have remained totally unaware while Saddam's death squads apparently executed prisoners just a few hundred yards from their homes. "We didn't have any idea what was going on," says Sabbar, 50, from whose simple cinderblock home the barbed-wired infantry training ground is clearly visible. He places his hands over his eyes. "We must have been blind."

It may have been a willful blindness. From the moment Iraqi soldiers first appeared next to this quiet fishing village in 1983, residents knew not to ask questions. The troops brought in construction equipment and worked sporadically for three years building an exercise facility, barracks, guard houses, and a shooting range. The state security men took over in 1986; a permanent unit of soldiers was stationed at the compound, and military vehicles ferried in security forces for days and nights of target practice--and, it appears, more nefarious activities.

Villagers learned quickly that coming near the camp could have grave consequences. In 1993, they say, security forces seized three boats and arrested a group of local fishermen whom they accused of fishing in a prohibited military zone; the men were sent to prison in Baghdad, and from that point, Sabbar says, "nobody in the village dared to fish." Deprived of their main source of income, villagers have scraped by for the past decade doing odd jobs, driving taxis in the nearby town of Al Fallujah, and trying to grow crops in the sandy wasteland surrounding their hamlet. The security forces remained a distant, frightening presence: Sabbar says he had only a single contact with them in 17 years, when he lent one officer a cooking gas canister. "I have a small shop along the road. The people who trained here were prohibited from entering," says Sami Dahan Sabbar, the mukhtar's nephew, who is now squatting in a comfortable house previously used by the camp's security guards.

The Iraqi forces vanished in early April just ahead of the U.S. military. One week after the war ended, a carload of Iraqis arrived at the camp. From his new home, Sami Sabbar watched one of the men--apparently a Baathist informer--counting off several dozen paces from a barracks and gesturing to the earth. The Iraqis marked the spot, and three days later a team of U.S. Special Forces arrived and began to dig up bodies. A U.S. military forensics team began work a few days ago, identifying the site as a mass grave and taking some remains to a Baghdad mobile laboratory for testing. Locals speculate that the victims were Shiite dissidents rounded up in the brutal countrywide crackdown that followed the abortive rebellion of March 1991. But nobody knows for certain. The forensics work could unravel the mystery. "It's important evidence for the history of this region. This is one of the reasons we're here," says Captain David Rozelle, troop commander with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, who stood guarding the site. "It's eerie because we're going to keep doing these kinds of missions, and it makes the soldiers realize how serious this is."

Few of the residents of Qaryat al-Marrajah have gone to inspect the mass grave at their doorstep. They say they're nearly as fearful of the U.S. soldiers guarding the site as they were of the Iraqi security forces. But their awareness of the horrors that went on here has only confirmed what they already suspected about the ousted regime. "They would kill the most brave man, they would cut his ears off," says Ismail Sabbar. He remains troubled by the fact that he and his neighbors were oblivious to the killing. "If I knew that they were bringing people to be executed, I would have left this area," he says. "I would never have lived near a mass grave."