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Genocide Unearthed
JANUARY 2006
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Genocide Unearthed @ National Geographic Magazine
By Lew Simons
Photograph by Jane Evelyn Atwood, Contact Press Images 
Forensic investigators are assembling grim evidence of mass murders during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The forensics facility occupies part of the grounds of a former palace compound of Saddam Hussein's, a onetime pleasure court with swimming pools and boating ponds that now bristles with antennas and satellite dishes servicing CIA, FBI, and U.S. military intelligence operations. Rubenstein walked me through a quaintly incongruous white picket fence to a cluster of well-lit, air-conditioned tents, where I met specialists examining, x-raying, and photographing skeletons and studying clothing and artifacts such as jewelry, wallets, and government identity cards. Patterns of neat bullet holes peppered skulls and garments, many of them the baggy trousers peculiar to Kurdish men. Staring at cardboard boxes filled with skulls in plastic bags and skeletons precisely arrayed on steel gurneys, inhaling the oddly metallic death smells, I flashed on America's current fascination with TV forensics programs like CSI and Crossing Jordan. The real thing is not entertaining.
 
Rubenstein was for the most part all business. I reasoned that this was his way of protecting himself, not just from an inquisitive journalist but also from the nightmare he lived each day. Once, though, he let down his guard. "As you work with the victims, especially the children—their clothing, the baby bottles, the little shoes, just like the ones we bought for our daughters years ago, the little hands, so expressive in death—you have to try not to get into the heads of the monsters who did this, or it becomes overwhelming. You look at a perfectly knitted baby bonnet with two bullet holes in it, and you think, These could be your own kids."
 
The killers sometimes treated men, women, and children differently. "The men show signs of torture, of being tied and handcuffed," Rubenstein said. "The women often had children with them and received, perhaps, the blessing of being shot once at close range. All of this is based on clear evidence, not speculation." An early step in the forensic analysis is to remove clothing and personal possessions from skeletons before the specialists start examining the remains. This, explained Joan Bytheway, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh, is to ensure that experts don't form biases about the victims. Bytheway pointed out an entry hole at the top of a skull that she cradled, an exit hole near the left eye socket, and a radiating crack in the left cheek. Only after she and the other anthropologists incorporate findings like this into biographical profiles—"female, mid-30s, five foot four to five foot six"—do they reunite bones and possessions.
 
A few feet away from where Bytheway was working, Tim Anson, an Australian anthropologist from the University of Adelaide, showed me a partial skeleton on a gurney. It had been recovered from a grave near Al Hadr, about 55 miles (88 kilometers) southwest of Mosul. The most obvious thing about it was that only the back of the skull remained. "The entire face was blown away," said Anson. He also noted leathery, mummified tissue in the forearms and explained that this was because the person had been buried in the middle layer of a grave 12 to 14 feet (3 to 4 meters) deep. Even after as long as 20 years in the earth, bodies farther underground often contain fat and other soft tissue, while those closer to the top are reduced to bare bones.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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