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

It took only 20 more days for the Mass Graves team to pull 114 Kurds — including 8 women clutching dead babies — from the Muthanna tomb. Trimble, meanwhile, conducted his usual ground survey of the area and pinpointed more corpse-filled pits than he expected. "If Spielberg was going to make a movie about genocide in Iraq," he says, "here's his opening scene."

Trimble was amazed to find ten mass graves. "It didn't look right. It looked like something out of a movie: too overdone, too many people, too many dead people, too many graves, too big a sweep. If you saw that you'd just go: 'Nah, half of this is fake.'"

But it wasn't fake. Saddam Hussein's death squads, in fact, carried out their slaughter in a single evening during the Anfal offensive, says Trimble, drawing a map to explain. "Everybody was brought down here in buses from Kurdistan, maybe 600 kilometers. The buses lined up here, and all night long they'd take people out, line them up, while the other buses would idle."

courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble
courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble

Trimble looks up and imitates the sound of machine-gun fire and says, "They got here about three or four in the morning. [The killers] left about five. All night long, one shooting after another. We know that because one twelve-year-old kid survived. They shot him in the shoulder and buried him, and he crawled out after they left. He was wandering around the desert the next day, and a Bedouin found him. He took the kid in, raised him as his son, and then sent him back up to Kurdistan eight or nine years later to find the rest of his family."

The landfill in Sadr City might be the most squalid place on earth.

"It's a place out of Hell," says Trimble. "All the militias operate in Sadr City — they shoot people on the street and throw them in the dump."

It was April of this year when Trimble visited the landfill, passing rows of dingy mud huts and weaving through throngs of idle Shiites. When the convoy arrived, they saw a scattering of Iraqi snipers positioned on rooftops.

Recalls Trimble: "The major who was with us said, 'Don't worry about them. They won't shoot at us during the day.'"

Next Trimble noticed a hundred — maybe hundreds — of lounging, mangy dogs, staring up at him from the bottom of the dump. "I'll never forget that scene. These dogs had been chewing on those bodies all night."

Several hours later a feeling of dread overtook him. Trimble said it was time to leave. The getaway appeared to go off without a hitch, but the next day he learned that two soldiers in the convoy died returning from the mission.

"They were great guys," he says. "I worked with them for three hours one afternoon, and at the end of the day, they're dead. You sit there and think, 'Well, if I hadn't gone up there, they wouldn't have had to go out, and if they didn't have to go out, they wouldn't be dead. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot."

In late May Trimble's team flew southwest of Baghdad, over some of the most dangerous terrain in Iraq, to Karbala Province. With plenty of Anfal-related evidence assembled, the RCLO wanted the investigators to find some of the 100,000 Shiites killed during the Intifada, the 1991 rebellion against Hussein.

The prospective burial site rested atop the large escarpment of a canyon. It was the biggest Trimble had ever laid eyes on. For five days, he and three colleagues scoured the two-square-mile swath of scrub desert. Then the men noticed something unusual. "There was a spoil pile here and here," he says, pointing to a photograph. "And there was a little vegetation in the middle, which means that ground had been disturbed. These three things together — that's the signature of a mass grave."

In a corner of the pit, the team would find 29 men bound, blindfolded and gagged, with frayed scraps of headdresses and cotton socks. Some wore heavy coats and sweaters; others, pajamas and slippers. The brass buttons of one man's navy blazer were glinting. To the Shiites' right lay 80 spent shells from Kalishnikov rifles. It was a scene the Mass Graves Team had encountered before.

But on that day the echo of death was even more terrifying. As Trimble lifted the first body, the dead man's bones cascaded — "chock-chock-chock-chock-chock" — to the center of his tunic. "I've never seen more people shot up in my life."

Forensic archaeologists are like detectives, piecing together a mystery. The skeletal remains they extricate contain clues about the victims and their executioners.

Much of the Mass Graves team's year is spent in a laboratory inside M.A.S.H. -like tents behind a white picket fence on Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport. The victims' journey there begins in a tent known as "Intake," where workers strip away the clothing and unpack their belongings. There are ointments and cutlery, watches and sandals, beaded and metal jewelry. There are Disney-themed T-shirts and shoes. There are rattles and pacifiers.

"The [killers] came into town, told everybody to pack up their stuff, and said: 'We're going to resettle you down south. You're going to have a better life.' So all these women were carrying these bags this big," says Trimble.

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