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U.N. Investigators Help Yazidis In Iraq Find Bodies Of Loved Ones Killed By ISIS

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the Sinjar region of Iraq, it has now been six years since the ISIS genocide against the ancient Yazidi religious minority. And yet, survivors are still trying to find bodies of their loved ones. To that end, U.N. investigators begin exhuming a mass grave in October. NPR's Jane Arraf was there.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In the village of Solagh, yellow tape ropes off what used to be a fish farm attached to a technical college. Laborers and investigators dressed in white suits and masks are carefully digging and sifting through the packed dirt as I walk up to take a closer look.

One of the men is shoveling the dirt into this big, rectangular sifter, and then fine pieces of dirt come out. And he flips the gravel over. The other one is now going through it by hand, trying to make sure that they don't miss any of the bones.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT SIFTING)

ARRAF: Investigators have found at least 17 mass graves so far in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. This one is known as the mother's grave, and it's believed to contain the remains of dozens of pregnant and older women ISIS decided it didn't have any use for, including the mother of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad.

SAEED MURAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Her brother, Saeed Murad, is among the Yazidis who have come here. In 2014, ISIS rounded up and shot almost all the men and older boys in the Murads' village of Kocho. Saeed was wounded. Overlooked among all the bodies, he managed to escape. He could have moved to Europe as a refugee, but he doesn't want to leave this land, where there has been so much tragedy.

MURAD: (Through interpreter) My mother was the most peaceful, charitable person in the world. If she saw a poor person and we had only one piece of bread, she would cut it into half and give it to him. Nadia and I didn't get enough time to spend with her. We needed to have her with us longer.

ARRAF: He takes off his dark sunglasses and wipes tears from his eyes.

MURAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He's in an olive-green uniform, a fighter now with Yazidi paramilitary forces. Here in Sinjar, it's taken years to even begin to exhume bodies to identify them. Some will likely never be found. Saeed returned here after U.S.-backed Kurdish forces drove ISIS out. It was a year after the massacre, and some of the remains were still lying on the ground.

MURAD: (Through interpreter) When I came back and saw this, I was very depressed because I could see their clothes and bones. They all disappeared. I don't know who took them. Maybe animals got them, or some group of people took them away. When we came back after that, we didn't see their bones.

ARRAF: He believes that along with his mother's body, the grave contains the bodies of his aunts and his uncle and cousin's wives. Against the backdrop of so much horror and loss, the only consolation for many of the survivors is to be able to find the remains of their loved ones and bury them properly.

At a community center still under construction in the village of Kocho, Yazidis have gathered to give DNA samples. The International Commission of Missing Persons, based in The Hague, started working to identify victims in mass graves in Bosnia in 1996. They're still not done there and will likely take years here as well. Fawaz Abdulabbas, the commission's deputy Iraq director, walks me through the process.

FAWAZ ABDULABBAS: We start here, take their information, check it in our report if there is any missing information. After that, we shift to the second table. On here, he will give a blood sample. Ideally, each missing persons with three donors - and it's better to be, you know, close ones - so mother, father, siblings, you know, parents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No, no, no.

ARRAF: A 6-year-old boy screams as he's dragged to a table to have his finger pricked with a needle for a test that could help identify the bodies of a father and brother he doesn't remember.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: We meet a Yazidi woman, Layla. She doesn't want to give her full name because she's still afraid of the ISIS fighters who enslaved her. She's waiting for the bodies of her husband and three sons to be exhumed from another mass grave. She believes her mother is in the grave being excavated, along with two aunts, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law. You wonder how anyone can endure any of this. Layla says the murder of all the mothers is the hardest.

LAYLA: (Through interpreter) We have nothing left in the world except these bones. We want to bury them properly and pray for them. We want to sit down beside their graves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ARRAF: There's been so much trauma in the village of Kocho. The living have all deserted it. The homes where families were rounded up by ISIS fighters, some of them their Arab neighbors, are damaged and abandoned. Winding dirt roads lead to houses with collapsing walls. Trees are burned and blackened. Next to the village school where Layla's husband was a teacher, where ISIS herded families to be separated into those who would be enslaved and those who would die, there are 517 empty burial plots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)

ARRAF: We saw survivors digging them last year. They're still empty. The pandemic has delayed the return of the first of the bodies to be identified - about 60 of them. But at least those families know where the bodies of their loved ones are, news they dreaded and welcomed at the same time. But there are almost 3,000 more Yazidis still missing. Many of them are presumed dead. But until their families get the bodies back, there's the ongoing agony of not knowing.

Jane Arraf, NPR News in Kocho, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.