NAJAF -- A noisy backhoe digs up earth to uncover yet another mass grave in Iraq, human remains are exhumed and the forensics experts get to work on their grim task.
A skull is freed from a layer of clay, and a tibia is placed in a body bag to be sent to a laboratory to be genetically checked against blood samples from relatives of the disappeared.
The site near Najaf is one of many in Iraq, which has suffered through more than four decades of bloody conflict and turmoil.
Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. Next came the 1991 Gulf War, then the 2003 Iraq War and most recently the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) incursion, until the group was ousted in 2017.
Iraq has one of the world's highest numbers of missing persons, as a result, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In Najaf, work began in May to dig up a 1,500 sq. metre plot to exhume the bones of around 100 victims of a 1991 uprising against Saddam.
The mass grave was discovered by chance when property developers wanted to prepare the land for construction.
'He never came'
Intissar Mohammed was summoned to provide a drop of her blood as a sample because the authorities suspect her brother's remains may be in the mass grave.
Hamid disappeared in 1980 under Saddam's iron-fisted regime.
At the time, Mohammed and the rest of the family had moved to Syria, but her brother had stayed in Iraq for his studies, planning to join his family later.
"We waited for him, but he never came," she recalled, adding that her brother was reportedly kidnapped "and we never heard from him again".
She returned to Iraq in 2011 and remains hopeful that she will find out more.
Her DNA will be "compared with the bones found in situ", said Wissam Radi, a technician at the forensic medicine department in Najaf.
The identification process takes time and wears down the patience of relatives, who often complain that they feel abandoned.
Opening a mass grave is a mammoth task and "the biggest obstacles are financial", said Dergham Kamel of the Martyrs' Foundation, a state body in charge of managing mass graves.
He said another government institution, the Directorate for the Protection of Mass Graves, had received "no funding from the government" between 2016 and 2021.
The centralisation of the Iraqi system is another hurdle as genetic comparisons are conducted exclusively in Baghdad.
In Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq, forensic scientists are making slow progress in analysing the 200 or so mass graves left behind by ISIS.
'Killed by ISIS'
Hassan al-Anazi, director of forensic medicine in Ninawa province, has asked for the missing persons database to include all the region's ISIS victims, but so far to no avail.
"There are thousands of missing people," he said. "Every day, about 30 families come to us to ask for news of their loved ones."
But "due to a lack of political will" the al-Khasfa site -- a sinkhole south of Mosul that ISIS used as a mass grave that is thought to contain the remains of thousands of its victims -- has not yet been opened.
In a March 2017 Human Rights Watch report, eyewitnesses from the area gave accounts of victims being killed and thrown into the pit.
They said they had seen multiple mass executions conducted there, sometimes on a weekly basis, beginning in June 2014 and continuing until May or June 2015.
Bereaved Mosul mother Umm Ahmed is seeking information about the fate of her sons, police officers Ahmed and Faris, who were abducted by ISIS when it took over the city.
"I knocked on every door," she said. "I even went to Baghdad. But I got no answer."
The lack of information also presents a financial issue for many families: until the remains of a missing person have been identified, relatives receive no compensation from the Iraqi state.
A mass grave near Fallujah in Anbar, discovered in June 2021, was found to contain the remains of dozens of civilians apparently executed at point blank range by Iran-backed militias in the area.
The grave site falls within the area of operations of Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib al-Imam Ali, sources told Al-Mashareq at the time, noting that the militias had established a presence in the area after it was liberated from ISIS in 2016.
After local residents discovered the mass grave, the militias cordoned off the site in an apparent attempt to obfuscate the crime, according to Iraqi War Crimes Documentation Centre director Omar al-Farhan.
The mass grave is similar to dozens of others containing the remains of ISIS victims but is "the work of the militias, according to the testimony of the local population", he said.
In January 2021, rains unearthed another mass grave near the Salaheddine town of al-Ishaqi, exposing the remains of civilians who were killed by paramilitary groups during the battle to oust ISIS.
Iraqi officials accuse Iran-aligned militias of forcibly disappearing at least 12,000 residents of areas liberated from ISIS, under the pretext that they had ties to the extremist group.