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Jane Arraf: Iraqis desperate to identify loved ones

CNN's Jane Arraf
CNN's Jane Arraf

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CNN's Jane Arraf on Iraqis heading to a site of mass graves.
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MAHAWIL, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqis have recovered at least 1,500 bodies from mass graves in Mahawil, and investigators said they believe thousands more may still be buried at the site south of Baghdad.

Most of the victims are believed to be Shiite Muslims killed after an uprising against Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

CNN Baghdad Bureau Chief Jane Arraf went to the grave site and discussed the difficult and emotional process of identifying the victims with CNN's Fredricka Whitfield on Wednesday.

ARRAF: No matter what the numbers turn out to be, there are a lot of individual dramas being played out here. Each of these plastic bags that we're seeing actually holds what used to be somebody's brother or father or cousin.

Some of them were actually children, and some women by all accounts, many of them soldiers.

Now these bodies have been unearthed in the last few days. People around here always knew that this existed, but they were forbidden from talking about it. The same way that they were forbidden from mourning their relatives when they were killed by Saddam Hussein's regime. ...

These were Shiite Muslims who appear to have been rounded up after the Shiite uprising following the 1991 Gulf War. Many of them appeared to have been killed in a space of two days, and their bodies [were] dumped into graves like these ones that we're seeing here.

Now behind us, you can see a crowd of people who are at open grave sites and still digging up these bodies.

There are several hundred bodies here, but many of them have not been identified. We're seeing relatives coming trying to identify them by their clothing, by little bits of things like the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the last sweater they wore when they last saw them as they were taken away. It's almost an impossible task.

Very few of the people have been identified ... but they do keep coming up out of the ground, and relatives keep swarming here desperately hoping they can finally find out what happened to their loved ones.

WHITFIELD: They obviously have no sophisticated means of identifying the body. You mentioned bits of clothing, cigarettes. Are those the only ways in which they can identify the bodies there?

ARRAF: This is definitely not a high-tech operation. The way they've been dug up is actually a bulldozer has come and just scooped out great mounds of earth, along with skeletons. These skeletons are sort of separated and put together in these plastic bags and people just come and walk by ... just trying to see anything that will identify these people.

Many of them have the identification they were required to carry as Iraqis, but they're faded from exposure of having been underground so [there's] really no easy way of identifying these people.

WHITFIELD: So is it your feeling that most of the people who have come out there really don't feel like they have any hope of identifying whether any of their loved [ones] are there?

ARRAF: We actually just heard from one investigator for Human Rights Watch that he had spoken to people who had taken away one body because the body had on it a pack of cigarettes, the same brand that their brother used to smoke.

That's an indication that people are so desperate to have something to bury, so desperate to finally know what happened to these people who have been missing for so long, that they're willing to accept almost anything.

There's quite a lot of anger here. People have been coming up and saying, "See, this is what Saddam did," and they have not been able to talk about it before now. To talk about it would have meant they might have suffered much the same fate as these people are facing in the plastic bags on the ground right now.

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