A mass grave containing seven sets of adult remains has been discovered in Al-Qiyama cemetery located in the Assyrian town of Bakhdida (Qaraqosh) in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq. The dead are believed to have been Christian Assyrian victims of ISIS massacres in 2014.
The existence of the mass grave site was first reported on September 7, 2019 by Ezidi24, but its existence has been known to locals since at least March 2017. In an interview with the Assyrian Policy Institute by phone on September 8, 2019, journalist Jameel Al-Jameel, who initially documented the site on March 25, 2017, explained that the human remains were discovered when local returnees visited the cemetery post-liberation from ISIS and noticed the stench.
The United Nations has defined a criminal mass grave as a burial site containing three or more victims of "extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, not having died in combat or armed confrontations."
Located on the east side of the cemetery, the grave site was exhumed in March 2017 by local volunteers. The site includes both male and female remains who were later identified by family members by their clothing and jewelry, including cross necklaces. The bodies were wrapped in blankets. Some of the remains recovered bear bullet holes, suggesting that the people in the grave were executed. See additional photos of the exhumation here.
A local priest conducted burial services in a private ceremony and the remains were later reburied so as to preserve evidence for any future investigations.
Prior to the rise of ISIS, the estimated population of Bakhdida was 55,000. During the time of the ISIS advance, security in the Nineveh Plain was controlled by KRG Peshmerga forces, however, the Peshmerga preemptively withdrew from their posts without notifying local populations. While most inhabitants of the Nineveh Plain were able to escape, it is estimated that at least 250 Christian Assyrians were either captured or unable to flee, mostly the elderly or persons with physical disabilities. Some were later released or escaped from captivity, but others remained missing and were presumed dead.
The site in Bakhdida contains human remains consistent with its designation as a mass grave site and warrants investigation. Authorities should take all possible measures to prevent further disturbance to this site and make all efforts to confirm the identity of the dead with DNA testing and provide dignified reburials.
Supported by a special United Nations investigations team, Iraq began working to exhume remains from mass graves believed to contain Yazidi genocide victims in Sinjar earlier this year with the aim of collecting forensic evidence. Similar steps should be taken in Bakhdida.