Answers From The Grave

DNA Technology Enables Identification Of Loved Ones In Mass Graves

While no evidence of weapons of mass destruction has yet been found in Iraq, evidence of mass murder is everywhere.

The evidence? Mass graves scattered throughout the country where families of victims have been trying to find the remains of some 300,000 Iraqis who disappeared during the Saddam regime.

Forensic experts hope DNA samples from the graves eventually may provide the clues to just who these victims were before Saddam consigned them to unmarked graves. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.
A mass grave found after the war in al-Hilla, south of Baghdad, is a mountain of misery.

When word got out, families swarmed over the grave. There were about 2,000 bodies. One by one, they wrestled with the dead -- searching for something, anything familiar -- a sweater that might have been his father's years ago. An I.D. card -- but for which body?

It was a panic that smelled of earth and death. It wasn't quite possible to believe the hideous mass of it all. Some were nearly paralyzed by the horror of it, and by the near certainty that the bones would never be identified.

There was only one thing the families could be sure of - if their loved ones were here, they died in terror. Many of the blindfolds were still in place.

"I found thousand and thousands of blindfolded disfigured bodies. I found skeleton systems belonging to a crippled man, belonging to child, small skulls," says Mohammed Haider, who searched for his grandfather, Sheik Haider, in the al-Hilla grave last May.

Sheik Haider was a cleric who was critical of Saddam, and in 1991, he was picked up by the secret police. Mohammed thought he might be able to find his body by searching for his grandfather's turban and clothes, and seeing if he could find a skull with two false teeth.

"This is arbitrary searching, this is arbitrary exploring," says Mohammad Haider.

"Arbitrary exploring" turned up nothing for Mohammed. His grandfather is one of thousands, undiscovered or unclaimed without a prayer of being identified -- until now.
Jim Kimsey, the founder of AOL, landed in Iraq this summer to bring technology to the tragedy. Kimsey retired from AOL, and is now a sort of a patron millionaire of lost causes. It started back when he was an Army Ranger in Vietnam. He opened an orphanage that he still supports today.

Two years ago, Kimsey volunteered to head something called the International Commission for Missing Persons. The U.S. Government helped set it up to identify victims of genocide in the Balkans back in the 1990's.

Is it possible that they will be able to identify the bones they've discovered so far?

"It's absolutely is possible. This is exactly what we ran into in the Balkans. And precisely the same kind of situation," says Kimsey. "We've, there, made thousands of positive identifications and we will make thousands more."

He's confident because they've already done it 1,500 miles away from Iraq in the Balkans in eastern Europe. In Tuzla, years after the Balkan wars, widows and mothers still carry a sort of walking monument in the Town Square. Every month, they parade the names of the lost so that no one can forget. It's a long line. And it is estimated that there are more than 30,000 still missing.

"These are a portion of the bodies uncovered in mass graves," says Ed Huffine, the chief scientist on the commission.

There are more than 4,000 bodies in here from just one 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. Kimsey's commission built a morgue and others like it, and the work is funded mostly by the U.S. with donations from twelve other countries. The morgue was originally designed to hold 800 body bags, but they've had to stack them up to the ceiling.

"This began almost immediately after the building was opened," says Huffine. "Because we had a very productive season of exhumations that year and thousands and thousands of body bags began pouring in."

And they keep pouring in from all over the Balkans. Even now, years later, they are still discovering new mass graves. The people who are laboring in one pit, a grave that holds 232 Muslims murdered apparently by Bosnian Serb troops, have dedicated themselves to an incredible proposition -- that everyone of these victims can be identified and returned to their family.

"Clearly it's a grizzly scene," says Kimsey. "The people or victims here have been murdered and put in one gravesite and then exhumed and carried up to this one."

Why were they moved from one place to this?

"To conceal them. This, as you can tell, is a very remote place and they, the perpetrators, obviously were fearful that the original site would be found, so they brought them up here hoping that the site would not be found," says Kimsey. "Some of the bodies have been burned and mutilated to try and delay identification."

But none of that -- the burning, mutilation or time in the ground -- will take away the DNA. Kimsey's scientists are using DNA technology on a scale like the world has never seen. They grind the bones and extract the genetic code that makes each victim unique. But that is only half of the puzzle. They still need to match the DNA from the bones to a family.

The matching piece of the puzzle is in a drop of blood. Through a massive outreach program, families of the lost are giving blood, hoping that their DNA will match one of the bones. Approximately 43,000 families have donated blood so far. Huffine told 60 Minutes that this vast database makes the impossible -- easy.

Huffine says it takes about three to five seconds to perform a complete search for each victim of all 43,000 profiles in the computer.

Before, the DNA program they were identifying about 100 victims a year. But now, they're identifying close to 200 a month.

"In the past, it would be classic forensic techniques which are those that don't use DNA, which would be fingerprints, clothing that someone is wearing, medical records. This type of evidence was used to create a presumption of identification," says Huffine. "What we've done is completely reverse that. DNA now leads the processing. All cases are DNA tested and then the classic techniques come in to confirm the DNA report."

Huffine's team has made about 4,000 matches in two years. But it's not just the speed - it's the accuracy.

"If they only rely on traditional forensic science, at best, they might identify 10 percent and a great proportion of those are likely to be identified wrongly," says Gordon Bacon, with Kimsey's commission. He says that with DNA they can get more than 99 percent of the IDs right.

Why go through all this?

"I think the people who might say that are people who haven't got someone buried and someone missing, because certainly the experience we've come across is people want answers," says Bacon. "They're desperate for answers, they've waited a long time."
If it's hard to imagine waiting for 30,000 still missing, then listen to Sabaheta Fejzic's story. Fejzic's only child, her 18-year-old son, was with her in a crowd rounded up by Serbian soldiers. That was eight years ago.

"I begged them to let me go with him and then my son started to cry. And when he saw that we couldn't go on together, he managed to kiss me and said, 'Mother, please go!' I looked at him, but I still couldn't leave," says Fejzic, speaking through a translator. "I didn't leave. I was holding him and looking into his big eyes -- he had such beautiful, olive green eyes and these fat tears, which were running down his cheeks. I'm never going to be able to forget that and they just tore him out of my arms and took him away."

Now, Fejzic's blood is in the database. She told us that she lives only for the day that she can bury her son. And it's the same for as many as 300,000 mothers back in Iraq. The loss here is 10 times greater than the Balkans.

Kimsey's commission envisions multiple morgues running DNA on an industrial scale. To see how enormous the project would be, look at the floor of just one community center, where there are 800 bodies laid out in hopes of identification.

The dead are men from southern Iraq who were executed in 1991 after the uprising against Saddam. Their hands are tied behind their backs, and blindfolds are bound to their skulls. They were machine gunned in trenches, and a highway was paved over the top of them.

With the discovery of each new mass grave, Haider wonders whether he should go searching again for his grandfather. Why is it so important to find him now after 12 years?

"To visit the grave of my grandfather is very important," says Haider. "Because in the Islam religion, the dead have the ability to see any visitor that comes to him."

Does Haider believe this?

"OK, can see any visitor come, have the ability to arrive to him, to come to him," says Haider. "Can see that, perfectly."

If Haider believes that the dead can see, Kimsey's Missing Persons Commission believes they also have the power to testify.

But there are probably a lot of Iraqis who don't want to see these mass graves found, and the bodies identified.

"Just as there were many Serbs and others in the Balkans who did not want that process to continue, and those people now, some of them have been indicted as war criminals. And that process will, hopefully inexorably continue as it should here," says Kimsey.

"And to the extent that these people, over time, are brought to justice, tried as war criminals, and society sees that it will hopefully be a deterrent, hopefully will bring closure and relief to the families of the aggrieved ones."

With the center of Iraq still in chaos, Kimsey's project is off to a slow start. The missing persons commission has given its DNA database software to the civilian authority, but many Iraqis don't want the process to start until they are trained to take part.

So far, 240 mass graves have been discovered in Iraq.

  • Rebecca Leung

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