AL-HUD, Iraq — It was just one grave — a hole in a field of dirt — but people from this tiny village knew of many more.
The man inside had been dead more than two years. The corpse’s features were still intact when Mohsin, a former policeman, found it in the summer of 2014, after ISIS seized the nearby city of Mosul and then pushed south through al-Hud on a shock offensive that took it to the gates of Baghdad. Mohsin recognized the dead man, who had fair skin and hair, as a Kurdish fighter executed in one of the many gory videos the militants had put online.
Sickened by the sight — "that's a human body," he thought — he returned with a shovel and covered it with dirt.
It was a grim task he would repeat in the weeks and months that followed, as mass graves — some uncovered, others only barely so — began to appear around the dusty landscape. He and others from al-Hud would find the bodies while out hunting for rabbits and birds. Afterward, Mohsin said, he'd grab his shovel and return on his motorbike to cover them, hoping to preserve a piece of the humanity that under the militants was eroding fast.
Five civilians in one hole became seven soon after, he remembered. Another pit held 15. He found about 30 bodies in all, he said, and heard word of others. Some of them he recognized as people from his village. Others he’d never seen before. "We don't know who they are — maybe Yazidis, anybody," he said, requesting, for security reasons, to use only his first name. "Anyone we saw, we just buried."
Al-Hud was freed from ISIS earlier this month, as part of the offensive to retake Mosul, but the bodies have yet to be documented or exhumed. Iraqi soldiers let two BuzzFeed News journalists view only the Kurdish fighter’s grave, citing the risk of improvised explosive devices hidden further along the road. The cluster of mass graves outside the small village are some of the first grim signs of the atrocities soldiers expect to uncover as they push deeper into ISIS’s most important stronghold. “Probably there are more — we just haven't seen them yet,” said Abdulsalam Bayati, an Iraqi soldier who drove an armored Humvee to the grave on Friday.
The Kurdish man’s resting place, topped with some loose rocks and wind-blown trash, was also a reminder of the unknowable suffering endured by those under ISIS rule. There was nothing in the barren landscape to note the grave site by; Iraqi soldiers needed locals, including Mohsin, to guide them to it by memory. A location pin for the site on Google Maps said simply, "Unnamed Road, Iraq."
With a trace of lingering horror, Mohsin remarked several times that dogs had often disturbed the bodies, forcing him to rebury some as time passed. Shepherds, he said, sometimes complained of the stench. ISIS eventually covered some grave sites with bulldozers, he added.
There have been no press reports of visits to mass graves uncovered during the Mosul offensive to date, but they have been found previously in territory ceded by ISIS, including in the areas around Mt. Sinjar. Many of the victims there were members of the Yazidi religious minority who were killed by the militants as part of what the UN has called an attempted genocide.
Mohsin said he looked forward to the day when the bodies he’d worked to keep covered would be properly exhumed. “These are victims, and they have families. They’re going to be at peace,” he said. “I’m going to be at peace.”