KHANAQIN, Iraq — Last time Tadrian Abdullah was at Merkaz al Medina kebab restaurant in his hometown of Khanaqin, he was promptly asked to leave. The pungent lingering smell of rotten human tissue and blood that still clung to his hair and skin despite hours of scrubbing was too revolting for the owner to stomach.
That day was a particularly bad dig, Abdullah recalls. The images of the partially decomposed bodies he dragged out of the ground, and the accompanying smell of rotting human flesh, continues to haunt him.
Abdullah works for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. Five months ago Abdullah was a desk worker, filing paperwork and faxing documents at the ministry. However, with the sudden advance of the so-called Islamic State around Khanaqin, his job took a drastic turn.
Today he digs up the bodies of the recently executed, the victims of ISIS who have been dumped in mass graves across the region. The most recently discovered are in and around Tikrit, where ISIS recently was defeated. Some 1,700 mostly Shia soldiers captured at the former Camp Speicher military base in June 2014 are believed to have been slaughtered there.
When we saw Abdullah recently at the same table he was chucked out of three months ago, he explained that he and eight other members of Khanaqin’s Ministry of Martyrs had gotten a tip that day about a mass grave of executed Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. The team had to act fast—the area could be retaken by the ISIS militants at any point, and was still within their sniper range. Bundling into two pickup trucks along with a few Iraqi soldiers as guards, they drove out past the last joint Iraqi-Peshmerga checkpoint into the contested no-mans land.
The ground was wet, he remembers: Still in the grip of winter, and the cold saturated soil kept the bodies fairly preserved. Abdullah and his coworkers had no idea how many bodies might be in the grave. As they lifted one corpse after another out of the ground, the stench of the rot worsened.
Abdullah counted nine bodies that day. Each one that was pulled out revealed the remains of another corpse underneath staring upwards toward him.
“It was the ugliest day of my life,” he told The Daily Beast. “Each body, even the last body in that grave was full of blood and still had most of its flesh because of the rain and cold. We were pulling out the bodies and were getting covered in blood. When we got back we just burned our clothes.”
Skin and tissue easily came off the bodies as they were hoisted upward out of the ground. That grave was one of his first—the team didn’t have proper protective gear at the time, and gore covered him from head to toe.
Khanaqin and the surrounding area of Diyala province is not the only place in Iraq where ISIS mass graves are being found—but it is unique. In many areas, such as in Sinjar, where mass graves have been discovered frequently, ISIS had control for several months. All that remains in those graves are skeletons. In Diyala, however, the militants’ control was brief. Abdullah learned quickly that when he received a tip about a grave he shouldn’t expect skeletons, but bodies with facial features still intact.
“The bodies are in the middle of the decaying process,” Abdullah says. “We have the pictures of these people sometimes or videos of them before they were killed, and then we see their rotting faces. It keeps haunting us.”
When the first reports of these graves started surfacing in mid-December, Abdullah and a dozen of his colleagues were pulled into a room and asked to put down their pens and pick up shovels—the bodies had to be recovered, identified and returned to their families, and now they were responsible. Since the liberation of Diyala province from ISIS, new reports of potential mass graves have come into Abdullah’s office weekly.
When asked if he and his colleagues have sought psychological treatment, Abdullah laughs.
“This is Iraq,” he says, sardonically. “We only have our family. Without the support of them I would not do this job, I wouldn’t have a mental state to be able to do this kind of work. If it wasn’t for them then I would have given up.” He thanks his wife especially.
Still, Abdullah has nightmares. He suffers dreadfully, he admits. The decayed faces show up in his dreams. It’s the smell though, he says, that is the hardest to forget.
“You don’t forget that smell. It is impossible to forget the smell,” he says.
Abdullah and his boss, Harish Ahmad, agree to revisit the site of a more recent dig, several miles south of Khanaqin, toward the small town of Kobashi, where they uncovered 23 bodies—men, women and children, all shot in the back of the head.
Under the protection of soldiers we drive past a burned-out shell of a car stranded by the roadside, before taking a sharp right onto the desert terrain, stopping a few meters in front of a long trench. The ground is littered with surgical gowns, rubber gloves, and white facemasks—leftovers from the team’s recent dig.
The trench was first excavated as a fighting position for Peshmerga soldiers, then used as an execution site by ISIS and filled back in. Ahmad and his team have been digging it out yet again.
Leaning in, the trench still reeks.
Despite finding 23 corpses already, Ahmad says he is sure more bodies lie covered beneath the ground here. To find them, they just need to keep digging.
The thought of finding more bodies fills Ahmad with dread. He knows the mental torment his gravediggers like Abdullah go through—he goes through it himself, he says.
“It’s not human to see so many dead,” Ahmad tells The Daily Beast. “Not like that. Not rotten, pulling them up from the ground.”
Meters from the trench, Abdullah shouts out. Human teeth and hair lie on the ground in a plastic bag the team left behind by accident.
They will be unable to identify these pieces of remains. DNA identification is costly, time-consuming, and complicated here, Ahmad explains. His gravediggers have to attempt to identify the executed by rooting through any clothes for jewelry or documents that may identify them, or study whatever human features remain alongside pictures of the missing. Only in extreme circumstances can DNA samples be sent off to the only lab available to them a few hours away.
The workers suffer physically as well as mentally. Skin diseases have been cropping up in the team—a byproduct of close contact with rotting bodies without proper safety equipment.
Abdullah looks forward to his last grave, he says, but in the fight against ISIS, bringing some form of closure to the families of the executed, and allowing their loved ones to have a proper burial, is enough to keep him going.
“Of course this has changed my life,” says Abdullah. We are used to having people die and then they are buried—we aren’t supposed to see what’s going on beneath the ground.”
“And when someone is killed you expect that the killer will be brought to justice, to go to jail,” says Abdullah. “Now we wish to find those killers and bring them to justice, but after seeing what they’ve done, I hope we kill them ourselves. I hope they don’t get the chance to go to jail.”