Mass graves are being discovered as ISIS cedes territory in northern Iraq. BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio reports from three sites behind the war’s front lines.
The path to the mass grave is rugged and long, winding past a farmhouse and then off-road through muddy, rock-strewn grass. It ends at a quiet shore of the Mosul Dam, which is fed by the Tigris River. It was a long way for ISIS militants to take their captives — some 20 men, plus a woman and child — for execution. Locals can’t say for sure why they chose such a serene place. All they left behind were the corpses, piled together with their hands bound behind their backs and covered haphazardly with dirt.
“There were holes in their heads, like an execution,” said Abdulhamid Abdulrahman Mohamed, a 60-year-old man from the village of Bardia, where the bodies were found. He kicked through the dirt of the grave site to point out bullet casings and faded clothes.
Mohamed said the victims were farm laborers from the Yazidi religious minority, which ISIS targeted in a summer surge into the region around Mt. Sinjar, stranding tens of thousands of them near its peak and sparking U.S. airstrikes. No one came to identify the bodies, which were removed by the regional government last week. “We don’t know what happened to their families,” Mohamed said.
As ethnic Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, push ISIS back around Sinjar, they are uncovering mass graves like the one at Bardia. BuzzFeed News visited six of them on three sites behind the peshmerga’s front lines over the course of three days. The graves are grim evidence of ISIS’s drive to massacre the Yazidis on a far greater scale — which rallied much of the international community to the Yazidis’ cause, paving the way for the U.S. strikes. They also show the horrors that unfolded all the same.
Outside the village of Khana Sor, in a field near a poultry farm, a pit dug 6 feet deep bore signs of the chaos of an ISIS rampage. As in Bardia, regional authorities removed the corpses last week, but some possessions of the victims remained, including a dirt-caked toy unicorn that likely belonged to a young girl. The remnants suggest that ISIS militants came upon the victims as they fled with what possessions they could hold. Faded splashes of blood were caked into dirt at the top of the pit, marking the spot where some men were beheaded, said Lt. Col. Galal Alenky, 47, a peshmerga commander who helped drive ISIS from the area this fall and heads a battalion there today.
Alenky put the number of dead in the Khana Sor grave at 21 men, one woman, and one child. The peshmerga found it on Jan. 31, he said, when the poultry farm’s owner saw dogs digging through the site. It had an overpowering stench then. On Monday, small fragments of the bodies remained in the dirt: hair, a rib bone, teeth. “Nobody could believe that this would be here,” Alenky said.
Baravan Hamdi is an official with a special department in the government of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region tasked with documenting and exhuming mass graves and dealing with victims of war crimes. It was founded to address the mass graves dug into the Kurdish region by the Saddam Hussein regime, which killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch, in a campaign of massacres in the late 1980s. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) puts the number of dead far higher.
Hamdi said that ISIS’s mass graves were jarring for the seemingly wild-eyed manner in which the militants carried out the executions: They appeared to kill in a frenzy, shooting and beheading, and left the graves covered with only a light layer of dirt. “It’s not organized, and the bodies are being buried just beneath the ground,” Hamdi said.
The beheadings made the graves hard to document, Hamdi said — his ministry needed to match a head with a body to count a casualty, but some were missing.
Erin Evers, the Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the KRG has seemed unprepared to deal with these new graves, a fact complicated by the war raging nearby. The site in Bardia, for example, was discovered in August — only to sit for months at the mercy of animals, the elements, and locals who might want to discover for themselves if a loved one was inside. “It’s really tragic,” Evers said. “To go through what these people went through when ISIS came this summer and then six months later find out that their relatives might have been [in these graves] the whole time, and they’re not going to be able to properly identify them and find out what happened to them — it’s just horrible.”
Hamdi said his department had documented six mass graves so far in the Sinjar region, an historic stronghold for Iraq’s Yazidi minority. In addition to those in Bardia and Khana Sor, there are four graves in close proximity in the village of Hardan. The peshmerga found the graves in late December, but Hamdi said they can’t be exhumed because they sit within ISIS’s sniper and artillery range.
Khaled Gurmus, 33, lived in a village near Hardan and watched the massacre through a pair of binoculars, he said. It was late on an afternoon in early August when he saw ISIS militants round up Yazidi men, women, and children at a traffic intersection in Hardan. The women and children were eventually dragged away — possibly to be sold as slaves deeper in ISIS territory. The men were gunned down with assault rifles, then buried in shallow graves. The execution scene repeated with another group of men that night, Gurmus said: “We could see the men in the headlights of [the militants’] cars, and we could hear their screams.”
The next day, Gurmus said, ISIS brought a water truck to Hardan and washed the blood from the street.
At the site of the Hardan graves on Monday morning, local Yazidi men crouched down to the dirt, using sticks to dig for clues about the people inside, as peshmerga soldiers watched for ISIS movements from a sandbagged post on the hill overhead.
One of the Yazidis guessed that he had three relatives buried in the graves; another said nine or ten. Since the graves are still covered, it’s uncertain how many people they contain or who might be inside. “Just in our village there are 500 people missing,” said Ali Hachem, 43, a Yazidi from a nearby village.
He said there were some 500 people missing from Hardan too. If it had been up to ISIS, he added, “they would have destroyed us all.”
Hardan residents had identified just one of the victims in the graves — an electrician and father of three whose ID card had been unearthed, locals said. The other clues the men picked through at the site were testament only to the carnage: a pair of underwear, some shards of bone, a patch of flesh. “ISIS, they are animals,” said Melko Saido, 66, as he stood beside one of the graves.
Over the nearby mountain, much of Sinjar city and many of the villages around it remained under ISIS control. “They killed a lot of people there,” said Lt. Col. Alenky, the peshmerga commander. “So I think we will find a lot more graves.”