ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - More than 200 mass graves containing the remains of thousands of victims have been discovered in areas formerly controlled by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, according to a UN report released on Tuesday.
The report highlights the legacy of IS’ relentless campaign of terror and violence, as well as victims’ calls for truth and justice.
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN Human Rights Office have documented the existence of 202 mass grave sites in the governorates of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Anbar in the northern and western parts of the country – but there may be many more.
“The majority of the sites are in close proximity to Mosul, the largest city to be controlled by ISIL until 2017, and in the area of Sinjar [Shingal] district, which is predominately inhabited by members of the Yazidi [Ezidi] community. The smallest mass grave was discovered on 24 January 2018 in west Mosul, containing the bodies of eight civilians,” the report said.
The Ezidis were subjected to a genocide at the hands of IS for years after the jihadist group overran Shingal in Aug. 2014, forcing hundreds of thousands of the ethnoreligious minority group to flee their homes. Others, unable to leave, remained stranded in the war zone.
From Aug. 3, 2014, until June 3, 2018, 68 mass graves had been discovered in Shingal, not including additional individual graves found, Director General of Ezidi Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Khairi Bozani, told Kurdistan 24 in June.
According to the report, these sites could potentially contain critical forensic material to assist in the identification of victims and to build an understanding of the scale of crimes that occurred.
“Evidence gathered from these sites will be central to ensuring credible investigations, prosecutions, and convictions in accordance with international due process standards,” the report stated.
“Meaningful truth and justice requires the appropriate preservation, excavation, and exhumation of mass grave sites and the identification of the remains of the many victims and their return to the families.”
Between June 2014 and December 2017, IS held large areas of Iraq and led “a campaign of widespread violence and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law – acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide,” the UN explained.
“The mass grave sites documented in our report are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering, and shocking cruelty,” said Special Representative for Iraq of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Kubis.
“Determining the circumstances surrounding the significant loss of life will be an important step in the mourning process for families and their journey to secure their rights to truth and justice.”
The report also called on the international community to provide resources and technical support to efforts related to the exhumation and return of human remains to families, as well as their identification, particularly by helping strengthen the Mass Graves Directorate.
On Nov. 1, the Iraqi government postponed the start of exhumations in Shingal to ensure these operations are carried out in accordance with international standards and in consultation with the Ezidi community.
“The mass graves do not only contain the remains of our loved ones; they are also crime scenes, containing the evidence of crimes committed by [IS] for which Yazda continues to seek justice,” the Ezidi advocate organization Yazda affirmed in a statement, seemingly supporting the government’s decision and the UN’s position.
“It is essential that the exhumation of these mass graves be conducted in accordance with international standards, to ensure the reliable identification of remains and the protection of the probative value and admissibility of any resulting information and evidence before national, regional and international courts and tribunals,” the group concluded.
Editing by Nadia Riva