From the desert to the arms of loved ones; DNA tests give relief to relatives of Anfal victims

24-02-2024 04:01
Burial ceremony of 172 Anfal victims at Anfal Monument in Chamchamal, Feb 21, 2024

Peregraf- Haval Ghalib

After years of waiting and worrying about his missing father, a simple DNA test will give Saifeddin Kaifi a chance at finding relief. He believes that one of the recently exhumed mass graves of Anfal victims found in Iraq’s southern deserts may contain his father’s remains.

The DNA test is not merely Kaifi's dream alone. It is one shared by relatives of thousands of other victims of the genocide. They have longed to embrace the coffins of their loved ones and finally have a grave to visit in order to soother hearts and souls.

The DNA testing process began on February 17 in Chamchamal district. It is scheduled to last for about six days. After that, additional samples will be taken in other parts of the Kurdistan Region, in particular the Garmian administration.

"DNA testing has been one of our most important demands for many years because it will give us peace of mind by identifying the bodies of the Anfal victims," Kaifi told Peregraf. He is active in official efforts to identify and return remains and was recently in Baghdad to help facilitate the process.

In December, the remains of 172 suspected Kurdish Anfal victims were brought to the Kurdistan Region and prepared for reinternment.

The bodies, some of them belonging to women and children, were found in a mass grave in Muthanna governorate in 2019. They had been stored in Baghdad for more than four years.

"The mass grave excavated in Muthanna contains a number of identity cards and documents that show that the bodies were Anfal victims from Aghjalar district. We have registered 380 names in the villages of the district to take DNA samples," Habil Ahmad, director of the Anfal Monument in Chamchamal, told Peregraf.

The mass grave revealed a number of stories about the Kurdish genocide and the scenes were extremely upsetting for observers. There was the body of a mother who died with her arms wrapped around a newborn. The child's unworn shoes were in his mother's pocket. Six other children, who were blindfolded, had all been shot together and buried around her. There were backpacks, clothes, and baby supplies nearby.

"Every year our first request has been to conduct DNA tests with relatives of the Anfal victims. A large number of Anfal survivors have died and no samples were taken from them," Harem Khalid told Peregraf.

Khalid has fifteen Anfal victims in his family and his village, which is located in Qadir Karam, lost 152 people in the genocide. Ten children were born in the village to women whose husbands were taken away by the Iraqi authorities. They never had a chance to know their fathers, but they are lining up to provide DNA samples in hopes of identifying their remains of their lost parents.

Unfortunately, the process is moving frustratingly slowly. Only 150 DNA samples were taken during the first three days of the process.

A source familiar with the procedures told Peregraf that each person must fill out a form that is 40 questions long. If a person has five relatives who disappeared, they will be asked questions about all five, which takes time to write out.

All living beings have DNA, from bacteria to humans. It contains genetic traits that are passed along to offspring through reproduction. Half of a person’s genes are received from their father and half from their mother.

Dr. Farhad Barzanji, a DNA expert and director of the Microgen Center, told Peregraf that "to identify remains, samples can be taken from the bones, blood, hair, saliva, nails, or skin of relatives." However, the most useful samples are from a living person’s hair or saliva.

"We rely on bones for the purposes of identifying Anfal remains, even if it has been many years. If the parents are Anfal victims, we can take DNA examples from their children and vice versa," Barzanji said.

"To compare the samples, the father or mother must have at least 99 percent similarity with the child. For brothers or sisters, they must have at least 96 percent similarity," he said. Extended male relations, like uncles and cousins, can be identified by using Y chromosome testing. For samples involving female relatives, experts use mitochondrial DNA testing.

The exhumation of mass graves, identification of remains, and reburial of Anfal victims is regulated by the Law on Mass Graves Affairs No. 5 of 2006.

Dr. Anwar Abubakr, a professor at the College of Law at Sulaymaniyah University, told Peregraf that a special committee should be established to oversee the process to ensure that the victims and their families are treated with dignity.

"The current Iraqi government, as the successor of previous governments, has the legal authority to conduct genetic fingerprint tests for Anfal victims, but it must be done in coordination with the Kurdistan Regional Government," Abubakr said.

He also warned that there are risks, including the misidentification of victims, if the testing is not done with the involvement of genetic fingerprint experts. This would deny the victims and their families the justice that they deserve.

"From a legal and political point of view, deciding where DNA testing of the bodies of mass grave victims is conducted must take into account several important factors, such as technical skills, safety, and proximity to the residences of the victims' families," Abubakr added.

He is in favor of taking DNA samples in the Kurdistan Region because it facilitates the participation of the relatives of the victims. They feel more confident that Kurdish officials have the experience and expertise needed to conduct such tests effectively. This can strengthen the principle of autonomy in combating crimes against humanity.

Sample collection for DNA testing at the Microgen Center costs less than $1,000 for both the remains of a Anfal victim and the living relative. But this can cost more than three times as much in other countries, like Turkey and Jordan.

Barzanji argued that the DNA tests are a matter of national security and pride.

"The DNA of a nation cannot be taken abroad and examined in the laboratories of countries that are against this nation. It is better to do the tests domestically. The Kurdistan Regional Government should build a national laboratory for this purpose," he said.

According to Barzanji, a purpose-built facility would only cost $5 million and would be able to perform all the necessary DNA tests, identification of remains, and collection of forensic evidence. It could also be useful for pathology and medical care for living people.

Of the estimated hundreds of thousands of victims of the Anfal and Barzani genocides of the 1980s, only about 2,500 bodies have been exhumed from the southern deserts and brought back to the Kurdistan Region.

The Anfal campaign lasted for seven months from February to September 1988. During this period, more than 182,000 people in eight different parts of the Kurdistan Region were rounded up and killed by the Ba'athist regime. Thousands of villages were destroyed.

The third phase of the campaign, which focused on the Garmian region, is generally regarded as the most brutal.

"Serious efforts should be made to bring back all the bodies of the Anfal victims, so that their relatives will no longer be waiting for their loved ones," Kaifi said.