Sonny Trimble's grave undertaking: unearthing the victims of Saddam's slaughter.

And then that square of silk turned up. Trimble told Wade Ricard to make some parallel passes with the track-hoe to see how wide the grave might be. "People, they don't all fall flat," he explains. "They fall at angles. It's horrible. So you come down [with the track-hoe] and see a foot and realize you can't go deeper. So you come across, and then you see a head. And you stop. All the rest is taken off with hand tools. Over the next day or two, you're really in the belly of the beast."

Trimble called over the team, each member carrying shovels, buckets and brushes. Carefully, they cleared away layer after layer of sand. A tangle of bodies began to surface. The dead lay on their sides, stacked on top of one another.

"It's not like you see them instantly," says Matt Vennemeyer, a team member from St. Louis. "The work is very slow, very steady."

u.s. department of justice regime crimes liaison o
Sonny Trimble tells track-hoe operator Wade Ricard to 
remove several inches of sand as the pair begin excavating 
a mass grave.
u.s. department of justice regime crimes liaison o
Sonny Trimble tells track-hoe operator Wade Ricard to remove several inches of sand as the pair begin excavating a mass grave.

The victims looked to be decomposed — skeletons cloaked in rainbows of crumpled fabric. One woman was fully clothed in a flowing dress of yellow and purple. Next to her a little girl wearing eleven layers of clothing appeared, not far from a toddler in a beaded necklace. Mingling with the skeletons were large sacks stuffed with tea kettles, sewing kits, ointments — mundane objects a mother cannot live without.

Everything had to be mapped, sketched and photographed exactly as found in the grave. Trimble's team then placed each person's head, hands and feet in separate bags before putting them in body bags.

Recalls Jack McDonald, a United States Navy lawyer who observed the Ninawa excavation: "Sonny would tell the army guys putting the bodies in the trucks every day: 'Treat these people well.'"

Trimble also made certain that a case file was assembled for each victim — as much out of respect for the dead, he says, as for forensic purposes.

The dig well on its way, Trimble began scouting for other tombs. "It took about two or three days for my eyes to get used to the dirt, and then I realized the ground didn't look right over here," he says. Trimble summoned Ricard and the pair painstakingly set to work, displacing dirt for two entire days.

"Most people who go into archaeology have this idea in their minds that they'll love it because they've seen National Geographic or watched the Discovery Channel, where all they show is a guy brushing the skull on some object that suddenly comes shining up at him," says Trimble. "It's never like that. It's mostly hundreds of hours of tedium where you're digging with hand tools and you don't find anything."

Trimble and Ricard descended eleven feet below the Ninawa desert floor, and there they discovered the fringe of a second mass grave. "No one," Trimble whispers, "was supposed to find these guys — ever."

One hundred feet away in the first trench, more women and children, their dark hair fastened in French braids, turned up every day. Some of the Kurdish matrons clutched fluffy white blankets that hid the shattered remains of babies. Says Trimble: "When you put a gun against somebody's head and pull the trigger, the bullet goes in first, but a quick second later all the gases and force associated with the bullet blow out whatever is on the other end of the skull. The babies' skulls are tissue-thin to begin with. They haven't developed yet. So the skulls are there, but in many, many pieces."

As team leader, Trimble split his time between the trenches, both about the size of a backyard swimming pool. One day, midway through the excavation, he walked into the pit teeming with women and children. He saw a small girl lying face-down, holding a red-and-white-striped ball. "I just stopped and stared at that kid," he recounts. "You think of all the kids you played ball with when you were younger. You think: 'I had a ball like that.' I thought of my daughter. It was very unlike me. I can put up with almost anything. I have a high threshold for smell, pain, bad things.

"I just turned around and walked away. I wasn't going to be sick, I wasn't crying, I was upset inside but not visibly breaking down. I turned to the [archaeology] director, and I asked her, 'Would [you] please remove that person?' She said: 'But why? We're not ready yet.' I said: 'If you want me to come down into that grave, you have to get rid of that kid. I cannot see that kid with that ball.'"

Sonny Trimble has long been regarded in the discipline as a hustler, a big-picture thinker, a master of persuasion — and something of a cowboy. The kind of guy who could probably pull off mass exhumations in the heat of battle and not get his own people killed doing it.

Trimble began to acquire his rebellious rep almost twenty years ago, back when he suggested that the Corps of Engineers establish a curation division. Superiors told the newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Missouri that his idea was crazy, not at all practical. Who, they said, would want to keep track of millions of old bones, clay pots and weapons — relics dating back centuries in some cases? Trimble dismissed their skepticism and proceeded to photograph unkempt archaeological collections across the nation. He called it his "Shame of the Smithsonian" project and published the photos in scientific journals.

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