Mass graves of ISIS victims discovered across Iraq and Syria

GWEN IFILL: Cataloging the atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq is a difficult, sometimes impossible task.

A new report from the Associated Press attempts to document the mass graves holding some of the group's victims. The AP found 72 mass gravesites around Syria and Iraq. One of the sites held as many as 1,700 bodies.

For more, we are joined by Associated Press reporter Lori Hinnant, one of the authors of the investigation.

Lori, thank you for joining us.

Seventy-two mass grave sites, how were you and your colleagues able to find them and document them?

LORI HINNANT, Associated Press: Well, we used a variety of sources.

We first went to Iraqi Kurdistan, where there are at least 35 mass graves on Sinjar Mountain alone, most of them holding the bodies of minority Yazidi.

We also talked to the Kurdish regional government, who told us of at least two others, one outside Mosul at a prison, where 600 to 800 inmates were killed, and another in a deep natural geological pit.

Then we asked the government in Baghdad what they knew to try and triangulate some of the other information. We also went into archives of news reports when sites were discovered. For Syria, we can't go in. So, we had to speak to activists, locals, some fighters who are fighting against Islamic State, and people who are trying to document human rights abuses.

GWEN IFILL: Do mass graves also — always mean mass killings? That is to say, did all of the people — or the bodies that you found in these graves all come from single episodes, single assaults?

LORI HINNANT: Not necessarily, although, largely, they did. And even for some of them, it's not clear who is even in them. The graves have not been excavated and they are untouched.

Others are in territory that no one has seen. The pit outside Mosul and another one in Syria, for example, we know from Islamic State's own propaganda that they have buried hundreds, if not more, bodies in them. And they just tossed them in really without a thought. We have no idea why the people were killed exactly or when.

So, in those cases, yes, the victims are killed at different times. In Sinjar, they were all killed at the same time.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know how they were killed? Are we talking about gunshots? Are we talking about sometimes in some cases illness?

LORI HINNANT: Illness seems unlikely. It's mostly gunshots.

The assault on Sinjar, for example, it was some gunshots. Some people were beheaded. A few were run over by cars. And the site that holds the bodies of about 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, they were all gunned down after being forced to lie down on the ground. Same with the Shiite prisoners of the prison in Mosul.

GWEN IFILL: You said that, in Syria, it was difficult to physically get to the actual gravesites. Then how were you able to document what happened?

LORI HINNANT: Well, what we did was, we relied on multiple sources.

So, we didn't just wait for one person to say, we think there is a mass grave here. We tried to find a variety of sources, including locals. Some people sent us photos, which we could help by geolocating and by coordinating with what Islamic State's own propaganda says. They have made no effort to hide what they're doing.

GWEN IFILL: Can the bodies that are then retrieved, or are they being retrieved, can they be identified?

LORI HINNANT: Well, that's the complicated part right now, that they largely aren't being retrieved, for a variety of reasons, a want of money, want of political will, and very, very unstable areas.

Sinjar Mountain, although it's been largely taken back from Islamic State, still remains a part of it inside a no-man's land within reach of mortars. Some of the sites are believed to be booby-trapped and are too unsafe to go in to.

The bodies in some cases have been identified. Relatives can find personal belongings. They can sometimes even find I.D.s. And there is a center in the city of Dohuk where they are keeping some of these belongings, in hope of finding other survivors who might be able to say who they were.

GWEN IFILL: Has anyone ever been charged or jailed or in any way punished for these deaths?

LORI HINNANT: There has been justice done in one case, quite recently actually, in the death at Camp Speicher of the 1,700 Iraqi soldiers.

Just on August 21, 36 men were hanged who had been convicted in those killings.

GWEN IFILL: As part of this investigation, Lori, and you talked to people who were survivors or witnesses. Were you able to talk to any of the relatives of people who think that their loved ones might be in one of these graves?

LORI HINNANT: We did.

At one point, we went to an area just outside the town of Hardan, Iraq, and we met a man there who originally was just there to tell us about the graves. He was one of the leaders of the village, and he wanted to tell us about the graves and how much they wished that they would be excavated and that the people who were buried in there would get a proper burial.

And it took some time before he finally acknowledged that, in fact, two of his adult sons were among the victims of that killing. And after a little while, he and I talked for a bit longer, and he invited another young man down from the hillside town just above where the killings had taken place, and said he actually saw the killings.

Turned out that the young man whose name was Arkon (ph) had never spoken with the father about what happened the day his two sons were — died. It was really chilling. As we were standing there, the two men discussed the events of this horrific day that they feel as though they're reliving every single day that they pass the grave.

GWEN IFILL: Will this father ever be able to retrieve the bodies of his sons?

LORI HINNANT: He hopes to. He sounded very resigned to it. He said he wanted the international community to understand that they couldn't keep reliving the sorrow all of the time. All he wanted was a proper place for his sons to be laid to rest.

GWEN IFILL: Lori Hinnant of the Associated Press, thank you very much.

LORI HINNANT: Thank you.

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