Iraqi forensic teams are exhuming mass graves in the recaptured town of Tikrit, scene of a 1,700 man massacre carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) in June last year. These group executions, often filmed and posted online, have become a hallmark of the brutal extremist group as it has rampaged across the Middle East. Indeed, such choreographed violence is becoming popular amongst terrorists and insurgents alike, designed to instill fear in their enemies and attract like-minded thugs to their cause.
We have been creating and exhuming mass graves for millenia. Indeed, for many ancient and pre-Columbian civilizations, such burial practices were an important part of their societies. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, often buried their Pharaohs with their slaves in giant tombs. Pre-Incan cultures in Peru, meanwhile, are recording having disposed of their thousands of sacrificial victims in common graves.
These practices were not necessarily sinister endeavours, although it is doubtful whether many of the victims saw it that way. Sacrifice played a central role in Mesoamerican and Amerindian culture, implemented to appease the gods and prevent the end of the world. Great rulers,on the other hand, were deemed in need of their staff as well as their possessions when passing into the next world. Such rituals necessitated murder but they were not carried out with the same gratification as the massacres perpetrated by today’s terrorists.
Additionally, there were the mass burials of plague victims – whose deaths were not calculated – designed to protect vulnerable communities from contagion. From London to Barcelona, evidence of this grisly disposal during the Black Death has been found in recent years.
Of course, we no longer live in a world where human sacrifice and mass burial are construed as acceptable practices (with the possible exception of disease prevention). As such, most mass graves for the past few centuries have been associated with war. Many people will have seen the harrowing images of Jewish corpses being bulldozed into giant pits at the Nazi concentration camps during WWII.
Another infamous example from that conflict is the Katyn Massacre, when over 4,000 Poles were arbitrarily executed and buried atop one another by the Soviet NKVD. In the conquered city of Konigsberg in East Prussia, German civilians recall being forced to bury thousands of their slaughtered kin in the Soviet bomb craters that had destroyed their city.
A more recent atrocity was the Srebrenica Massacre of some 8,000 Bosniaks by the Serbs in 1995. Exhumations of the mass graves have been undertaken periodically in the last few years, with the identified victims finally laid to rest in their own caskets.
There are numerous other examples which could be cited in a longer piece. What makes mass graves so disturbing is their destruction of the individual. Whilst they may ultimately become a symbol of community suffering and reflection, for the families of the victims they offer no peace. Indeed, this can only be achieved through the ghastly exhumations and identifications that have been forced upon countless forensic teams in recent years.
It is the ultimate disregard of human life, something that even during wartime is quite incomprehensible. Exhumations, therefore, serve a crucial and noble purpose. By identifying bodies and returning them to their families for a proper burial, grief can be overcome. If we were ever in need of an incentive to unite in the fight against extremism, ethnic cleansing and mass murder then this must be it.