BAGHDAD—Bone by bone, workers at the Baghdad morgue are piecing together the victims of Islamic State, a gruesome jigsaw puzzle that has overwhelmed Iraqi authorities and delayed a sense of closure for families of the missing.
After decades of conflict, culminating in Islamic State’s brutal three-year reign over the country’s north, Iraq has one of the highest number of missing people—and unidentified bodies—anywhere. Yet only 25 people in the country have been trained in scientific exhumation techniques, and the morgue attached to the single Baghdad laboratory equipped to conduct DNA tests is running out of space to store remains. Those limited resources have been further strained by the economic crisis curbing Iraq’s budget.
“Sometimes we can’t receive any more cases because we have nowhere to put them,” said morgue worker Ali Husham, 31.
Meanwhile, members of the excavation team say they have developed skin problems working with so many decaying bodies. One of them, Dhia Abdulamir, says while he and his colleagues have become accustomed to death, some of them are haunted by what they have seen, such as a male victim clutching a photograph of a child.
“You cannot have stability if you have very large numbers of people who are unaccounted for,” said Kevin Sullivan, a spokesman for the International Commission on Missing Persons, or ICMP, a Netherlands-based intergovernmental organization that is assisting Iraqi authorities. Elsewhere, Mr. Sullivan said, failure to address the issue of missing people “has compounded the difficulty of establishing a postwar settlement.”
Iraq lacks precise figures for missing people, but even before Islamic State’s killing spree, ICMP estimated it was anywhere between 250,000 and one million—the grim legacy of multiple wars and violent repression under former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi authorities were still unearthing mass graves dating back to the 1980s war against Iran when Islamic State conquered around a third of the country in the summer of 2014 and enforced its rule with extreme violence. Earlier this month, Iraq uncovered the remains of 85 Iranians and 10 Iraqis killed in that earlier conflict in mass graves in the country’s south.
Islamic State’s rule ended late last year when Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition drove the militants from the last pocket of territory they controlled in the country.
Mr. Abdulamir was involved in digging up the site west of Mosul that a local shepherd had identified as their mass grave. The Indian workers lay side by side as they fell when Islamic State killed them not long after seizing the city in 2014.
The remains of 38 of the men were flown back to India on Monday and handed back to their families. The body of the 39th man is still in Iraq because DNA testing to identify the body isn’t complete.
Speaking to local media on Monday in the city of Amritsar in Punjab, where most of the men were from, India’s junior foreign minister Vijay Kumar Singh said forensic tests showed some of the men had been shot dead, while the cause of death for others hadn’t been established.
Responding to criticism the government had taken too long to locate the men, Mr. Singh said the search could only begin after Mosul’s liberation last summer. “The Indian government left no stone unturned,” he said.
Iraq has now identified roughly 300 mass graves in Iraq, including those predating Islamic State’s incursion. So far, around two-thirds of them have been opened up and determined to contain the remains of nearly 5,000 people, according to Najiha al-Shimmari, the head of the Martyrs Foundation, the government agency responsible for dealing with mass graves and compensating victims’ families.
“We expect to find more,” she said.
While it is relatively manageable to reconstitute a skeleton and make an identification from remains kept separate from others, bones of multiple victims mixed up in a mass grave pose a far tougher task. It can take months to sort them out and return identified bodies to relatives. For that reason, some experts warn it will take many more years to complete the process.
“We’re talking about huge numbers,” said Zaid al-Yousif, the head of the Baghdad morgue. “Our resources are too limited to deal with all these cases at once.”
Among the mass graves yet to be excavated is a natural sinkhole south of Mosul believed to be the largest one of all, where the militants disposed of hundreds, if not thousands, of their victims.
But before work begins on the remaining sites, Iraqi authorities must establish a database to identify the remains they exhume. That involves collecting DNA samples from tens of thousands of people with missing relatives, many of them scattered by the war.
“Time is not in our favor,” said Dhia Karim, who oversees the excavation of mass graves. “The more time goes by, the harder it is.”