Something terrible happened here. Something murderous
Paul Harris with British forces near Basra
Sunday April 6, 2003
The coffins are laid out in neat rows in an abandoned warehouse. In each is a crumpled bag of bones, old and dusty but still recognisably human. In the open end of one sack a skull is buried among the fragments of a skeleton. Its eye sockets are empty. Its teeth are smashed. Beside it, two ribs point out like accusing fingers.
Something terrible happened here. Something murderous. Something evil.
The proof lies in a cargo container nearby. Its metal door hangs open and inside are pages and pages of files. Each sheaf of notes contains a picture of a man or woman. Each and every one has been shot in the head. Their wounds are mangled and gaping. Many of them barely looked human any more as the anonymous photographer chronicled their dead faces. It is a horror almost beyond words.
It is hard not to see the black and white photographs - two for each victim - and want to look away. Yet each was a brother, a father or a son. Or a mother or daughter or sister. Each had a past and hopes for a future. Yet each ended here, in this dry and dusty hall of the dead. There must be at least 200 of them in the plywood coffins roughly hammered together by a hurried carpenter. All of them are in bags, jumbled together in anonymous piles of remains.
'Whoever they are, they have been desecrated in their death. No one should ever treat the dead like this,' said Sergeant Simon Brain, a veteran of tours in Bosnia who has seen places in the Balkans that look similar to this. 'That is two countries now that I have seen mass graves,' he added with a shake of his head.
There are signs of torture too. Outside the warehouse stands a wall. It is dotted in the centre with a spray of bullet holes. Nearly all of them are at head height. There is a ditch behind it. If anyone was shot against the wall, their blood would have drained cleanly away. In another warehouse a dozen tiny concrete cells have been built of breeze blocks inside the hangar. In some of them portraits of Saddam Hussein stare from the grey walls. In several an iron pole has been hung from the roof. Dangling from it are rusting metal hooks. They are ideal torture chambers.
'We can't speculate on what this is until an investigation has been carried out,' a British military spokesman said. But one officer, speaking privately and clearly shocked by what he had seen, was more blunt. 'Just look at those photos,' he said. 'Look at this place. People were being tortured and executed here.'
The building has now been declared off limits after being discovered by British soldiers of the Third Regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery yesterday morning. An investigation will now be launched into exactly who lies in the coffins. War crimes investigators have been alerted to the discovery and the building sealed off and guarded.
No one will envy the officials who will have to venture inside. The warehouse lies on a sprawling and abandoned military base on the outskirts of Az Zubayr, a small town near Basra. No one lives nearby. It can only be reached by rough and pitted mud causeways that traverse a lunar landscape contaminated by oil leaks from nearby refineries. Multi-coloured slicks soak into the dust of the drained saltmarshes as they bake in the sun. There is no sign of life apart from the stray dogs that swarm over this part of Iraq.
The base itself is a mess. Most of the buildings have been trashed or looted and destroyed over the previous decade or so of war and sanctions. There are holes in many of the buildings and roofs missing from some of the barrack huts.
Yet the warehouse of bones was locked and intact. There is little doubt that the bones are several years old. No flesh remains on the long brown leg and arm bones or bits of rib. Only a few tufts of tough black hair lie scattered on the floor, where dogs have tugged at a few of the bags and spilled their grim contents on the unforgiving concrete.
But there is no doubt the base was inhabited until only a few weeks ago. Among the buildings are Iraqi army shirts still in their bags, new gas mask respirators, signal huts for an artillery unit and maps with military drawings on them. Yet the Iraqi soldiers who were here were literally living beside hundreds of corpses.
Exactly who they were is so far a mystery. But there are a few clues. Some of the bags are made of plastic and inside them can be seen a few pieces of military equipment. The green belt of the Iraqi army is plainly visible in several of the sacks. Were they soldiers suspected of disloyalty in recent years? Were they Shia rebels from 1991, many of whom were in the army? More than 50,000 Shia were killed by the forces of Saddam Hussein in their doomed revolt. But in most of the bags there is no trace of clothing. Just bones.
In one sack a single photograph lies. It is a simple ID card. From it a middle-aged man stares out. He has black hair, a long face and a drooping moustache. In life he would perhaps have looked pensive. But lying half covered by his own dusty remains, the man pictured looks sad and forlorn, regretful for the life stolen from him. A splotch of bloodstain on the corner of the card is reminder enough of the brutality of how all his hopes must have died.
It is hard to stay in the warehouse long. In one corner empty coffins are stacked four or five high. Whoever was doing this grim work was stopped before they finished their task.
That is a small mercy, but no respite for those already dead.
Inside the hangar the dusty air hangs close around the clothes and almost makes one retch to think of what is being breathed into the lungs. It is a relief to leave the charnel house. Outside the sun shines. A breeze blows some of the bone dust away. But inside the horrors remain, testimony to the crimes of a regime that, while facing death itself, will leave images of terror that time may never erase.