excerpt from Chapter One
Abdel Satar al Musawi’s decomposed remains lay on the ground above his former grave.His older brothers sat beside them, holding them, crying. Although he was arrested in 1998 and killed in 2001, they had only learned of his death three days before and now they had come to claim his body. “His crime was loving freedom,” his friend Abdel Karim said. He had come to find his own brother too.
It was April, 2003 and I had only been in Iraq a few weeks, beginning my career as a journalist. I thought nothing good would come of war: it was predicated on lies , and would subvert democracy and law at home as well as abroad. I was skeptical that a foreign occupation would be welcomed by Iraqis, and knew that the American civilian and military branches of government were ill prepared to understand a different culture, especially a Muslim one, and especially after the trauma of September 11. But I had come to Iraq wanting to give a voice to Iraqis, and this meant restraining my views, and listening. As Iraqis rubbed their eyes and awoke to the new reality in a mix of shock, depression and euphoria, I was as confused as they were; nothing seemed black and white.
With the collapse of Saddam regime the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of thousands of political prisoners were finally being revealed to their families. Iraqis could find files on their loved ones and discover what had become their fate. More often than not, the news was not good.
Several dozen members of the al Musawi family had come to claim four of their brethren from the Karkh cemetery. The cemetery, in Haswa, just outside Baghdad, entombed political prisoners, many of whom had been murdered at the nearby Abu Ghraib prison. All four murdered members of the al Musawi family were cousins: Abdel Sattar al Musawi, born in 1966, hailed from the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, and was married with two children; Salah Hadi al Musawi, born in 1974, was from Baghdad’s Thawra neighborhood; Salah Hasan al Musawi, born in 1971 was also from Thawra as was Saad Qasim al Musawi, born in 1967, was married with six children. The body of family friend Qasim Ahmad al Maliki was here too. He was Abdel’s age, from Thawra as well, married, with no children. All were killed in2001. “They were killed for no reason,” a friend of the al Musawis explained.“There was no justice, no court, no defense.”
The al Musawis had traveled by bus and in a pickup truck. They carried with them flimsy wooden coffins made of boards and a black flag of mourning. At seven in the morning, they were the first family in the cemetery that day. The dafan, or grave digger, Muhamad Muslim Muhamad, was a small man in sweat pants with a buttoned shirt tucked in. He assisted with an obsequious eagerness and I suspected that he was compensating for an unconfessed complicity in the crimes he helped bury.
Karkh was the size of a football field, surrounded by a brick wall fringed with eucalyptus trees. The ground was a sandy gray, with mounds to mark the shallow graves of the bodies. Some of the mounds had holes burrowed into them, where animals had fed on the corpses. On a stick in the mound was a card with a number on it. The al Musawi family had the plot numbers for their dead, and Muhamad the gravedigger led them to the first one casually strutting over other graves. It belonged to Abdel Satar. When they found the grave, the previously silent men collapsed in loud sobs. They kneeled on the ground and clung to one another, only quieting down when the gravedigger began to undo his work. They watched in an apprehensive and lachrymose silence. Perhaps they still hoped that the grave would be empty?. The digging slowed as the earth being removed turned to a wet dark red, as if stained with blood. Muhammed abandoned his shovel and used his hands. Abdel’s exhumed body was the color of the earth, thin and dry. Amid calls for “my brother!” his body was placed on a plastic sheet and wrapped in a kiffin, or white cloth. It was then placed in the wooden coffin to await the trip to Najaf, south of Baghdad,where it would be buried in the City of Peace—outside of China,the biggest cemetery in the world, and the preferred burial site for all Shias.
As Abdel Sattar’s brothers and a handful of others remained by his coffin, the rest of the family moved on to another cousin’s grave. The body emerged in separate pieces and the bones were placed together in a pile around the skull. By nine in the morning six other families had arrived to reclaim their loved ones and their wailing cries could be heard from all corners of the cemetery. I couldn’t help but cry too. Abdel Sattar’s former employer was also present. “He was a lovely boy,” he said of him. I asked if this had happened to many people he knew. He gestured behind him to the hundreds of graves and said “see for yourself.”