On June 9, 2014, the extremist group known as the Islamic State declared it had taken control of the northern city of Mosul. The executions began almost immediately. And on August 5, the murderous extremist group began posting lists of names. At first there were around 2,000 names. These were the people they had taken and killed. On the lists were also orders that the families of the deceased not enquire about where their loved ones had been buried, nor should they conduct any kind of memorial or funeral service.
Parents could only look at the names of their children on those lists and return home to grieve behind closed doors. Other relatives left the noticeboards quietly filled with joy: Their loved ones’ names were not on those lists.
Rumour had it that the Islamic State group were throwing the bodies of those they had executed into a crater about 20 kilometres south of Mosul. The locals named the crater Al Khafsa, or the Crater of Death.
The latter is a natural rock formation and, according to earlier research by the University of Mosul, is around 40 meters wide and of an unknown depth. Because it’s so deep, and almost impossible to climb down into, nobody knows what was at the bottom of it before the extremists started using it to dispose of bodies.
A young man from a nearby village told reporters that the extremists would bring pickup trucks to Al Khafsa every day, loaded with bodies they would then throw into the crater. Sometimes locals were blindfolded and brought to the edge of the crater. There they were shot and their bodies simply pushed over the edge of the crater.
“People were terrified and made up stories about the crater,” the young man, who wished to be known only as Hisham, said. “They said they could hear moaning from the bottom of the pit and they also said there were animals in there feeding on the bodies.”
Hisham said that none of this could have been true: The crater was so steep that animals could not have made it down there, nor could any human have survived a fall into the crater.
Shortly before the extremist group was defeated it tried to fill in the crater, throwing old cars and rubble into the hole, in the middle of 2017.
Although it is thought that the remains of thousands of Mosul locals are still inside the pit, the local government has no way exhuming them, the deputy head of the Ninawa provincial council, Noureddine Qablan, says. International help would be needed. “I have approached several international aid organisations about this but they have all declined and without really giving any reason. Perhaps it is something outside of their abilities too?,” Qablan suggested.
It would be incredibly difficult, says Khazal Izzedine who lost two brothers and a cousin between 2014 and 2016, and thinks they were murdered and buried in the carter. “There are thousands of bodies in there, on top of one another, and there’s no doubt they are disintegrating.”
Another local politician, Basma Basim, says that there has been no follow-up in this area and that she was attempting to get the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament to address the situation. The public perception in Mosul is that the government doesn’t care and there are many misunderstandings, Basim argued.
In early August, the friends and relatives of those people whose names had appeared on the original Islamic State lists held a demonstration to protest the inaction. The only response to the demonstrations seemed to come from a local humanitarian organization, which called for a campaign of remembrance for those who were killed and advised parents to document victims’ details as best they could.
Mohammed Abed Rabbo, who is in charge of citizens’ affairs at the Ninawa provincial council, says there have been around 500 requests for information from the families of the missing. There are a number of different lists of missing and dead people and currently those lists are being checked against one another, with a view to further investigating the disappearances.
Having a loved one disappear is not just taking an emotional toll. For the families of the missing to be able to claim any kind of state benefits, they need a death certificate or evidence of a corpse.
Of the thousands of dead and missing, paperwork has only been completed for around 100 people, another local MP, Shirwan al-Dobardani, complained. The bureaucracy that requires a dead body or a death certificate is the reason, he says, noting that he is trying his best to establish a parliamentary committee to look into this, as well as investigate the potential to exhume bodies from Al Khafsa cavern.
“There are so many obstacles for the bereaved,” explained local journalist and blogger, Shihab al-Saffir, who has been trying to get evidence of the death of his younger brother for the past two years, in order to officially register the death. “The legal requests for information are a thorny issue.”
Al-Saffir believes that the Iraqi government should pay more attention to the families of the dead and missing, saying that by ignoring their plight, the government encourages a lack of trust in officialdom. “It is as if our citizenship was also stolen