He is now one of just a few surviving witnesses to the Islamic State’s killings in Hamam al-Alil. One evening around 8 p.m. several weeks ago, he said, he watched from his rooftop as eight minibuses drove toward the area where the mass grave was discovered, and he heard gunshot after gunshot.
“I saw Daesh bury 200 bodies over here,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. (The official government estimate is that roughly 100 people were killed in Hamam al-Alil. But Human Rights Watch, after carrying out its own investigation, believes that at least 300 were killed there.)
In the days before the killings, he said, Islamic State militants herded hundreds of people — perhaps thousands — from nearby villages and took them to Hamam al-Alil, using them as human shields against the possibility of American airstrikes.
In the city, he said, the militants gathered the people, reciting verses of the Quran and praying to God to protect them from Iraq’s Shiite militias and army. Then they separated out the former policemen, many of whom, after the Islamic State conquered their lands more than two years ago, repented for their service and made peace with their new rulers.
Now, as government forces waged an offensive to reclaim these territories, the Islamic State saw them as potential spies, or a fifth column preparing to rise up and join the security forces, and ordered them killed.
“I cannot believe I am still alive,” Mr. Younis said.
For Iraqis, the pain of not knowing can be the worst of all. The International Commission on Missing Persons, a Netherlands-based organization, has estimated that up to a million Iraqis have gone missing in recent history. That encompasses the war between Iran and Iraq, the mass killings ordered by Mr. Hussein after a Shiite uprising in 1991, the Iraqi government’s Anfal chemical-weapon strikes against the Kurds in the late 1980s, and the more recent sectarian civil war of the last decade.
The commission noted on its website that there are “millions of relatives of the missing in Iraq who struggle with the uncertainty surrounding the fate of a loved one.”
Go anywhere in Iraq, especially in the south where Shiites dominate, and knock on almost any door, and you will hear a story of a lost loved one and, improbably, of a remaining shard of hope.
Nihad Jawad, a teacher from the southern city of Hilla, said that one night in 1991, her brother left home and was never heard from again. She has heard all sorts of rumors — that he was seen being apprehended by the military, that he was shot. “We searched everywhere for him, and we have found nothing,” she said. “We still have hope that he is still held in one of the secret prisons.”