Several decapitated bodies found during initial examination of mass grave in Hammam al-Alil area near Mosul.
Shirqat, near Mosul – It was the last day of Ramadan in 2014 when Lieutenant-Colonel Abed al-Bari Daif Mikhlif, 41, head of the forensic team for the police of Shirqat – located 80km from Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris river in Salaheddin province – was captured by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
He was on his way to Baghdad when he was abducted at one of ISIL’s checkpoints in the city.
“When ISIL controlled Shirqat in June 2014, Abed al-Bari knew that he had to leave,” said Farhan Mikhlif, the colonel’s cousin. “ISIL was looking for army and police commanders mainly, and he knew it was not safe for him any more,” he told Al Jazeera. “He was trying to get to Baghdad when they took him. Our neighbour was passing by the checkpoint, and saw them arrest Abed al-Bari, and notified us.”
According to Mikhlif, It was past midday when the neighbour broke the news of the abduction. Mihklif rushed to one of ISIL’s headquarters to get some information on his cousin’s whereabouts.
“The man we spoke to did not deny that they took Abed al-Bari. On the contrary, he confirmed that they arrested him on the basis that he was spying for the government. ISIL militants threatened to kill us if we continued our search for Abed Al-Bari,” Mikhlif said. For two years, the family had no information on Abed al-Bari, who left behind three children – two boys and a girl.
Last September, the Iraqi army took control of Shirqat from ISIL fighters, in a military operation launched in advance of a push to recapture Mosul.
Those who came with information confirmed that ISIL had executed tens of locals, including women and children.
On November 7, the head of the council of Shirqat, Ali Dodah, announced that the local authorities had located two mass graves in the area. One of them was in an old army warehouse, 17km south of the city. At this grave, there were 10 bodies, while the other grave had some 30 bodies.
“Some residents of Shirqat knew of the two mass graves before ISIL was pushed out. They couldn’t notify anyone about the sites, they waited until the police were able to operate again and they presented all information they had,” Dodah told Al Jazeera.
“Those who came with information confirmed that ISIL had executed tens of locals, including women and children, in the last two years, while they were controlling vast areas of the Salaheddin province. They pointed out two possible locations of mass graves.”
Local authorities in Shirqat could only work on the one mass grave – found close to the old military warehouse. “The bodies found are highly decayed and it is not possible, at this point, to identify the victims,” said Souad Mohammed, a member of Salahuddin provincial council.
“Almost all victims were shot at a close range, but to be certain of everything, we have to wait for the report of the forensic team,” she told Al Jazeera.
These findings apply to the grave near the old military warehouse. Forensic teams were able to reach it easily through a paved road, where they could avoid possible landmines. However, identifying the bodies is not the only challenge facing local authorities in Shirqat. ISIL had planted road bombs and landmines, which pose a serious threat to any attempt at working on the site of the second mass grave for now.
The second mass grave remains as found. “We can speculate how many are buried there, from the size of the burial place, but we can’t be certain until the forensic team starts pulling out all bodies,” Dodah confirmed.
“We are at a point where we are trying, with the Iraqi army, to clear the area of the landmines that were planted by ISIL, in order to allow the forensic team to extract all bodies, as a first step to try to identify the victims and notify their families properly,” Mohammed added.
On November 5, another mass grave was discovered in the nearby town of Hammam al-Alil in which more than 100 decapitated bodies were found. Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Military Command, said the bodies were found about 14km from the southern outskirts of Mosul.
According to the United Nations, ISIL fighters have reportedly shot and killed scores of civilians in Mosul in recent days. Last May, more than 50 mass graves were discovered in territory formerly controlled by ISIL, including three burial pits in a football field, according to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq.
So far, only one body has been identified from the mass grave inside the military warehouse. The body was identified as that of Lieutenant-Colonel Abed Al-Bari Daif Mikhlif, as his family confirmed to Al Jazeera.
Mikhlif says that his cousin’s body was not in a state that allowed any proper identification, but the personal documents suggested that it belongs to Abed Al-Bari. “We took permission from the police to move the body and give my late cousin a proper burial. So, we went to the site with some police officers, wrapped pieces of cloth on the body, and took him [deceased Abed Al-Bari] home,” he added.
“It is hard enough for us, as a family, not knowing his fate for two years. Now, we have our closure, his wife and his three children can mourn their loss. Now we have a grave to visit.”