BAGHDAD — Hamoud Abdilima dug into the chalky earth of the Al-Karikh Cemetery, first with a shovel, then with his bare hands.
Gently, he removed a leg bone, an arm bone, a skull. After 16 years of searching, he had found his brother.
A few feet away, Ali Al-Asady collapsed, sobbing, over the bones of his father, Faadl Al-Asady, a man he knew only from pictures and the stories of relatives. Soon he rose and composed himself. After exhuming the remains of 16 family members, he had two more graves to find.
In other rows, other families bearing shovels and caskets joined in the grim task of reclaiming the victims of Saddam Hussein’s religious and ethnic purges.
The fate of the hundreds of people buried here, in a once-forbidden section of the cemetery, had been unknown until last week, when people searching for traces of loved ones found death records in the headquarters of Iraq’s secret police, the Mukhabarat.
The green certificates led them to Al-Karikh, on Baghdad’s western outskirts, and to the numbered graves separated from the rest of the cemetery by a 5-foot wall.
Hussein Abdul Hussein, a 17-year-old gravedigger, said that only a few families came in the first few days. Now they arrive by the dozens, some with trucks to carry the remains of decimated families from Basra, Nasiriya, Kut and Najaf, Iraqi cities with large Shi’a populations.
Others have traveled from Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish-held north, reflecting the breadth of the Iraqi leader’s killing campaigns.
“Saddam killed many people,” the teen said, his hands and shirt caked with dirt. “Saddam is a bastard. I hope he is dead.”
Another gravedigger, Mohammed Abbas, 26, said the Mukhabarat continued to bring bodies to the forbidden area until just before the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq last month.
“It was always a special group that came with trucks and diggers,” Abbas said. “We were not allowed to go near. They said that if they caught us, they would kill us.”
Most of those buried at Al-Karikh are believed to have been held and executed at one of Iraq’s most forbidding prisons, Abu Ghraib, just a few miles to the east.
According to the death certificates found in the secret police headquarters, most were hanged. The documents do not list the offenses.
The families say their murdered relatives were simply victims of genocide.
“My family did nothing. Nothing,” said Al-Asady, 22, stabbing at the air with his finger. “Saddam killed them because they are Shi’a. That is the only reason.”
Al-Asady was only a year old when the Mukhabarat took his father, a cleric and teacher in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. His brothers and 15 other relatives also disappeared.
All were held at Abu Ghraib for five years until their deaths, the records show. Abdilima’s brother, Abdulkasim, was arrested in Nasiriya in 1987 for joining a banned religious party, Al-Dawa. An informer had befriended him, then turned him in for cash, Abdilima said.
In the years after, Abdilima repeatedly contacted the government for information. Each time, he was told his brother was alive.
“They are liars and killers,” he said. “We are thankful to the Americans. Without them, we still would not know what happened.”
Now, he said, the families can give their loved ones a proper burial. Tenderly, the families placed the bones on white blankets ringed by Arabic script, a prayer for the dead. The blankets were placed in wooden caskets and loaded into vehicles.
Some families said they were leaving directly for Najaf, the burial place of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed.
It’s unknown how many graveyards like the one at Al-Karikh are in Iraq. Abdilima suspects there are many around Baghdad.
Human rights groups say Saddam, a Sunni, killed tens of thousands – and perhaps hundreds of thousands – of rival Shi’a in systematic purges that began shortly after he took power in 1979.
But because records were believed to have been lost or destroyed in the looting and arson after the capital’s fall, the names of the missing may never be matched up with the numbered graves.
“It is a terrible thing not to know if your brother is alive or dead,” Abdilima said. “There is only pain inside. My pain will not go away, but now it is better.”