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Forensics helps bring Iraqis closure

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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DNA testing helps bring closure
  • Baghdad's DNA lab opened last year at the city's main morgue
  • Lab has collected thousands of DNA samples from unidentified bodies, including bombing victims
  • Forensic techniques like blood samples from relatives help identify victims
  • DNA evidence is also being used more often in Iraqi courts
  • Iraq
  • Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- The drab but pain-filled room at Baghdad's morgue is a stark reminder of how much this country still suffers.

People shuffle in here as a last resort. Taking their seat they then look up at the screens on the wall in front of them -- while every instinct they have must scream at them to avert their tired, sad eyes. Then comes the painful part; viewing a gruesome slide show of human remains in the hopes of identifying their missing loved ones.

Inside here it's mostly women searching for their husbands. The children stay outside -- quiet, looking scared.

Some leave the room in tears, having gotten the horrible answer they were seeking. For the rest, this is just the beginning.

Four-year-old Maryam's father disappeared after twin suicide car bombings that rocked central Baghdad in late October. Her family believes he was in the vicinity of the Justice Ministry, one of bombers' targets. The attacks were Iraq's deadliest in two years, as more than 160 people were killed, many of them still unidentified.

"We searched all the police stations and their computers," explained Wijdan Saloomi, Maryam's grandmother. "We searched everywhere and we didn't find him, so we finally came here to the morgue for the DNA test."

Baghdad's DNA lab opened last year at the city's main morgue. Since then, they've collected thousands of DNA samples from unidentified bodies. Dozens of matches have been made.

Maryam was brought to the DNA lab to give a blood sample, hoping it would help find her father. The screams of a frightened child filled the room when lab technicians pricked the girl's finger and began collecting the sample.

It's a scene that Dr. Amera Omar's team has become accustomed to in the aftermath of such tragedies.

"We have to process these samples with a limited time," said Omar, Head of the DNA Typing Department. "Because you know that the families... they are in a hurry to have the answers for their missing people."

She understands the closure these families need.

"You know, any human or any people who have a dear person like their son or brothers, they're always asking to identify their bodies and to know the fate of their cadaver and to make a normal grave," explained Omar. "It is a part of dignity for the dead people."

Maryam and her family will have to wait at least ten days to get a DNA result. It might not be the news they want to hear, but it could give them some small comfort.

According to Omar, collecting DNA evidence is an essential part of the work she does. "It is very important, she said. "Not for the dead people, for the living also. We are dealing with criminal cases, with rape cases."

DNA evidence is also being used more often in Iraqi courts that until, now have relied heavily on confessions.

Omar said she and her team are still lacking much needed resources, but believes things will improve when two new DNA labs open at Baghdad's Medical and Legal Institute next year.

Her department is also working with Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights to bring a mass graves project to fruition, so that bodies recovered from mass graves throughout Iraq can finally be identified.

"We are preparing now the people and staff to deal with some new sciences in Iraq, like archaeology and odontology and anthropology," explained Omar. "And we are now training our staff, some additional staff, to prepare them to work in the DNA lab for mass graves in the future."

At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006, well over 400 people a day would crowd the hallways of the morgue - there are far fewer people here now.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Taha Qasim has worked here for years. He said the situation at the morgue has improved dramatically since 2006. In those days he would routinely receive about 100 bodies a day. For 90 percent of the cadavers, violence was the cause of death.

Qasim worked alongside only 6 other doctors then. Things were so bad that he and his colleagues would sometimes go entire workdays without eating.

According to Qasim they now receive, on average, 20 bodies a day. And for more than 90 percent of the cadavers, death is due to natural causes.

Qasim now also has a lot more help. And yet, like many others who work at the morgue here, Qasim is informed by the horrible things he's seen. And as much as the situation has improved, Qasim will never forget those darkest of days.

"This my people. This is my country. When I see them killed and my country is destroyed, you can't know my feeling," said Qasim. "And you can now see the difference between that day and this day. Because of the security, because of the law now. So, I have hope that our people, our sons will be better than that day."

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this arrticle.