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

"Genocide is mass murder with the specific intent of targeting people because of their very existence, their identity," explains Dinah Shelton, a George Washington University law professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. "It's very hard to prove."

Sonny Trimble has no doubt he brought back from Iraq's ravaged soils the victims of cold-blooded genocide. "One man's opinion," he adds quietly.

Sketching a victim's lay-out in a grave can take an hour, 
sometimes more. Here: Matt Vennemeyer, of St. Louis, 
immortalizes a Shiite man found in a Karbala Province 
courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Sketching a victim's lay-out in a grave can take an hour, sometimes more. Here: Matt Vennemeyer, of St. Louis, immortalizes a Shiite man found in a Karbala Province desert.
The Mass Graves Team resides in a heavily guarded special-
purpose camp several hundred yards from where they dig.
u.s. department of justice regime crimes liaison o
The Mass Graves Team resides in a heavily guarded special- purpose camp several hundred yards from where they dig.

Every morning during the Ninawa excavation, Trimble rose before sunrise and sipped a cup of weak, army-issued coffee. He perused the latest situation reports along with the soldiers who guarded the team, and plotted the day's new meandering route out to the graves, 25 miles from Camp Jaguar.

The area around Mosul, 50 miles northeast, was fairly stable at the time, but Trimble learned quickly that being in Iraq always poses danger. One day a truck carting supplies to the graves hit a land mine and exploded. On another occasion, two soldiers driving away from the mass grave site rolled over a roadside bomb.

"It was very bad. They were wounded very badly," says Trimble. "They didn't lose their lives, but they will never fight again."

By fall 2004 the situation reports warned of more and more improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploding on the main supply road heading north toward Mosul. Trimble woke up one late-October day and read that an IED blew up just nine miles from the graves.

"We were done — that was it," he says. "There's no point getting killed while you're digging up dead people."

It was a good time to leave. The investigators in both trenches had recently discovered layers of corpses with waxy flesh, the smell of death still clinging to their bones. Trimble knew they could not excavate the Kurdish bodies without causing a biohazard. He had no refrigerated trucks, nor enough workers to bag the dead before maggots hatched.

"We're talking about hundreds of people," Trimble recalls. "I'd be standing there on the phone [with RCLO lawyers] in the middle of rotting flesh — all my people are in the middle of it — the smell is beyond measure, and there's so many flies you can't even see through them."

The team had already exhumed 123 decomposed women and children from the first pit, and 64 men from the second. But the RCLO had promised Kurdistan officials that Trimble would remove every person discovered, the archaeologist says. The lawyers insisted his team haul away the fresh corpses.

Instead Trimble and Wade Ricard "dressed the site" by refilling the graves slowly with dirt. It was sunny, still — not a cloud in the sky. It reminded Trimble of Montana. Soon the spitty rains of fall would begin.

Trimble's Humvee zipped through the boulevards of Baghdad one late fall afternoon in 2004, driving over medians and sideswiping cars. He rode in the middle of a convoy en route to Sadr City, the Shiite slum led by the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr. "It was balls to the wall," he says. The sound of gunfire sliced the air.

"I wanted to see Iraq's national archives," Trimble explains. "They had this crazy-genius Irish guy from the Hague who put them together, and I wanted to meet him. But this place is surrounded by bad guys, and nobody tells me until we're in the truck that [civilian U.S. government employees] won't go on this trip. All the agencies feel it's too dangerous — that you can get killed. I'm going, 'Well, why didn't anybody say anything to me?' That would have been nice to know."

Trimble swore off further "sightseeing."

He returned to St. Louis for the holidays but was back in Iraq in January 2005. It wasn't long before his next spine-chilling episode. He and Paul Rubenstein, the team's then-deputy, retrieved a colleague from the Baghdad airport one evening and unexpectedly got back on the road after dark.

"We got lost in a place where you don't get lost," remembers Rubenstein. "We found ourselves face-to-face with some Iraqis holding AK-47s, and we were, of course, unarmed." Trimble had gotten out of the car to ask for directions before everyone realized the men had guns. "We got him back in, and we slowly backed away, and nothing happened."

In April 2005 the team took a chopper to the middle of a desert in the Muthanna Province, ready to begin a new excavation on an area Trimble thought might contain six or seven graves. This time, the group lived in trailers on an adjacent site built for them, complete with a laundry facility and a cafeteria. Sixty private-security guards protected the miniature city around the clock.

Trimble and Ricard positioned the track-hoe over a site that appeared promising from the satellite photos they'd seen. Suddenly Trimble felt like something might go wrong.

"Archaeology is like a battle," he explains. "You plan for months, and when you get out there, your first two or three months, your first two or three days — sometimes your first two or three hours — things start falling apart."

With a mere ten sweeps of the track-hoe, however, the two men exposed a small, shallow grave — a classic bathtub burial, as Trimble calls it. He saw clavicles, chins, teeth and clumps of black hair. He could hardly contain himself. "It was never more perfect."

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