The Islamic State left behind more than 200 mass graves in Iraq, the United Nations said Tuesday, the aftermath of the three-year occupation of the extremist group in the north of the country, which could provide some of the first evidence of war crimes during their reign.
The Iraqi government has tried and executed dozens of Islamic State fighters before the group's withdrawal, but not for war crimes.
"The mass grave sites documented in our report are a testament to the loss of human lives, the deep suffering and the shocking cruelty," said the representative of UN.N. in Iraq, Jan Kubis.
Digging up funeral sites – with up to 12,000 victims – is a laborious job for which Iraq is poorly endowed. After years of conflict, Iraq has one of the highest numbers in the world, but only 25 specialists trained in scientific exhumation techniques.
The excavation of remains from sinkholes and other sites in the north and west of Iraq and the gathering of bones to identify the families has left the excavation team exposed to skin diseases, while the Iraqi morgue has struggled with the number of bodies.
However, the work is crucial for families denied closure after relatives disappeared under the rule of the Islamic State.
"The longer the mass graves are not dug up, the more we suffer. We want to know where our missing relatives are, "said Samir Faris, a member of the Yazidi community of Sinjar, who says the Islamic State has killed 24 of his family members. He believes that 14 are buried in a mass grave. "I want this pain to end. I wish the government would dig up the grave and tell us what it is, "he said.
Since 2014, the Islamic State has conquered about one third of Iraq and the swaths of neighboring Syria. In the same year, the first mass grave of the Islamic State was discovered in Iraq, which contained the remains of 14 Yazidi civilians, a community selected by the extremists for persecution.
Over the course of three years, before defeat against a US-backed coalition of Iraqi forces, men, women and children were executed in the Islamic State. The UN.N. has documented a total of 202 mass graves in parts of the country under the control of the Islamic State.
"The terrible crimes of ISIL in Iraq have left the headlines, but the trauma of the families of the victims continues and thousands of women, men and children are unknown," said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a new report with an acronym for the extremist group.
Almost half of the mass graves are located in the district of Nineveh, where the Islamic State is still active. Most of them are located near Mosul, the largest Islamic state-controlled city by 2017. The United Nations believes that the largest tomb in Khasfa Sinkhole outside of Mosul could contain several thousand victims.
In 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State, which was driven out of its main cities in Iraq and Syria. The group continues to rally from remote hiding places, but the work of excavating mass graves is an effort for Iraq to move beyond its current troubled history.
So far only 28 burials in Iraq have been dug up and the remains of 1,258 bodies have been uncovered.
In both Syria and Iraq – where the Islamic State dominated areas of land until last year – local authorities are trying to find mass graves, identify victims and promote reconstruction.
"The government should pay more attention to the mass-excavation and release more money for it," said Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, first deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, at a meeting with official representatives on Monday.
However, the huge challenges are not just enough for personal and technical training.
Some mass graves are located in areas where the Islamic State is still active, such as the governorates of Anbar and Salah al-Din. Some of the sites may be littered with explosive remnants of war. However, the work is seen as a critical part of Iraq's efforts to move under the Islamic State after a painful three-year period.
"Determining the circumstances for the significant loss of life will be an important step in the grieving process of families and their journey to secure their right to truth and justice," said Kubis.
– Hassan Adnan contributed to this article.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org