Joseph Stalin, the soviet dictator who is responsible for approximately 10 million deaths, once said that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” And while we loathe to listen to the words of a murderer, the quote reminds us that while death is devastating on a personal level, the thousands of deaths we hear about on a daily basis have little effect on our day-to-day lives.
Revering the dead is an ideal that we as humans strive towards. Every culture has their own version of what it is to mark the death of a loved one, and oftentimes cultures have used graves as a therapeutic place that loved ones can go and visit. At a grave you’ll usually find a tombstone, with carefully chosen words written on it to mark that person’s life and death. A grave provides loved ones with a space to remember their dead friends and family.
So when we hear stories of uncovered mass graves, it’s no surprise that people are shocked to their very core. The idea of multiple bodies being thrown namelessly into the ground destroys the idea of death as sacred. At a mass grave, there are no tombstones, no flowers, no epitaph to remember the individual. In a mass grave, each corpse has lost their identity, life, story, personality and relationships. Mass graves force us to confront the harsh reality of life and death.
10. Crab Island, New York: 150 bodies
Crab Island is situated on upstate New York’s Lake Champlain. The island that was previously owned and farmed by Caleb Nichols, but was seized and used as a hospital during the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh. It was the closest island to the battle, and allowed for injured soldiers to be moved to a safer area.
After the battle, corpses began to wash up on Crab Island’s shore, both American and British alike. The soldiers were piled together in a mass grave. It is reportedly the only grave in the world to contain American and British soldiers. It wasn’t until 1908 that the US finally commemorated the dead there by a granite obelisk that was supposed to look like the sail of a ship.
9. Ovčara, Vukovar, Croatia: 264 bodies
As the Croatian war was grinding to a painful and violent halt, Serb forces marched into the town of Vukovar and took over. Many civilians ran to the hospital with the belief that they would be evacuated in the presence of observers, as had been arranged by the Red Cross. Instead, the Serb forces blocked the bridge that the observers would need to cross to get to the hospital and loaded all 400 occupants of the hospital on to the bus.
264 people were then beaten and killed and buried in a mass grave. Some were set free while the others were separated into groups, killed and buried in the Ovčara farmland.
In 2009 13 people were sentenced to a combined 193 years in prison.
8. Crni Vrh, Bosnia: 629 bodies
The Bosnian war took place between 1992 and 1995 killing as many as 200,000 people. Out of 30,000 people who were reported missing during the war, 20,000 of them are still believed to be lost.
Yet slowly but surely, events have uncovered some of the horrific sites of mass graves. Experts have exhumed over 20,000 bodies from over 300 graves, the most recent being uncovered due to floods.
The largest of the graves that have been uncovered to date lies in Crni Vrh in Srebrenica where 629 bodies were discovered. Experts believe that most of the bodies were that of Muslims killed by Bosnian Serbs.
7. Grozny, Chechnya: 800 bodies
Since the Chechen War in 1994, mass graves have started to become uncovered. Although Russia has a general “Do Not Exhume” policy, many Human Rights organizations fight to be allowed to investigate potential mass graveyard sites. In 2008 the Russian government announced that it knows of 57 mass burial sites, but has yet to exhume them.
The largest of the sites is in Grozny’s Leninsky district. The bodies were said to have been mostly civilians but there were Chechen and federal fighters. Reports suggest that the bodies are from fighting for the city, and that it was civilian volunteers that collected the bodies from the debris before the Russian military recorded and buried the bodies.
6. Tuam, Co. Galway, Ireland: 800 bodies
Ireland has a dark past, but it’s one that was destined not to stay buried for long.
When Catherine Corless took it upon herself to collect all the death certificates from the Bon Secours Mother-and-Baby Home ( a maternity home for unmarried mothers and their babies) that was run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, she made a shocking discovery. She did not expect to find out that 796 babies had died in ‘the home’ between the years 1926 and 1961.
While rates of child mortality were exceptionally higher in those days, and particularly high in institutions for mothers because of the quick spreading of diseases, Corless couldn’t figure out where exactly these babies had been laid to rest. After discovering the numbers, Corless requested burial records from the Bon Secours sisters, who told her that there were none.
This discovery by Corless then sparked off nationwide debate in Ireland, leading to two boys (who are now men) to come forward to reveal their discovery of a mass grave they had found in 1975. When officials searched the location they only found two bodies that matched the certificate’s information. There is speculation that some of the bodies could have been placed in the building’s septic tank however many misleading stories have been published on the whereabouts of the bodies.
Today, Corless suspects that the bodies of the dead babies have been buried somewhere around the Mother-and-Baby Home and says that she would welcome an explanation and truth about the location of the babies, whose deaths are all meticulously recorded for all to see but whose graves remain non-existent.
5. Malbork (Marienburg), Poland: 2,116 bodies
In October 2008 workers came across human bones and skeletons while digging the foundations for a new hotel. Malbork had been previously a German city named Marienburug, and experts believe the remains were from a massacre that occurred during Russia’s advance on Germany in 1945. Many of the victims were shot directly in the head, and metal detectors used at the scene could not locate as much as a false tooth.
Originally thought to have been dozens, the numbers kept rising and by April 2009, the number of bodies found had climbed to 2000. The final count totalled to 2,116 which included 1001 women, 381 men, 377 children and 357 not identified.
4. Mahaweel, Iraq: 3,000 bodies
After Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq, many people stepped forward to finally talk about some of the atrocities that they had seen. This release of information meant that mass grave sites have been reported and exhumed all over the country. Since Hussein’s fall there have been 250 reported grave sites, 40 of which have been investigated and confirmed as mass burial sites.
Amongst these harrowing numbers of uncovered graves is one on the outskirts of a town called Mahaweel. After Hussein’s passing, farmers who had witnessed the murders came forward with the location of the site and eye-witnesses explained what they had seen. One farmer claims to have hidden in 1991 and watched as Hussein’s men carted in three groups of people, with approximately 50 people in each group who were bound with rags. The people were then shot, bludgeoned or just thrown into the grave that was made by bulldozer. The discovery of the bodies and the following exhumation proved the farmer’s words were true, with the researchers claiming that about 20% of people were buried alive, with no bullet wounds but their hands tied behind their backs.
3. Butovo, Russia: 20,000
During the Great Purge of 1937 – 1938 Stalin set to work silencing all that stood in his way. By the end of this one year alone, over 700,000 people were killed by the infamous “secret police” and buried in mass graves. The graves are scattered all about the former U.S.S.R. and when discovered revealed horrifying body counts.
At Butovo Shooting Range more than 20,000 people were killed between the period of 1935 and 1953, most of whom were killed during the purge. Foreigners and citizens alike were murdered and buried there. 96% of the victims were male and were between the ages of 16 and 75. A smaller few were female, older than 75 or younger than 15.
2. Hart Island, New York: 900,000
Not all mass graves are the result of genocides, war crimes or inexplicable violence. At Hart Island, the story is something much more morbid.
The island is steeped in history, having been once used as a prisoner-of-war camp, a women’s asylum, a workhouse for the poor and a Nike missile base, but what it’s used for today is what really escalates its death toll.
In 1869 New York City bought the island to bury their unknown dead. Some of the bodies are of people who were living away from home, others are from suicides, some are of long-lost family – but the city only gives families a few weeks to collect the bodies before they’re shipped away to Hart Island where they’ll be buried anonymously, without any ceremony.
Today, it’s inmates of the Department of Corrections that bury the unidentified dead making access to the island for loved ones difficult. However, Melina Hunting is leading the way for this to change with a petition to hand the island over to the Department of Parks so that people can visit their loved ones freely.
1. The Killing Fields in Cambodia: 1.38 million
When you think of genocide in these types of numbers, you think of Hitler and Stalin, you think of WWI and WWII. But thirty years after WWI, genocide reared its ugly head once more in Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist group run by Pol Pot took over the city of Phnom Penh. Desperate for an end to the civil war, Cambodians rejoiced initially. That is, until all Cambodians that lived in the city were ordered to the countryside and widespread interrogation and torture began.
Under Pol Pot, anyone considered clever was an enemy of the state. Amongst them are: anyone associated with or suspected of being associated with the former government, intellectuals/professionals, and a variety of ethnic/religious groups. If you didn’t cooperate, you were tortured and killed. If you did cooperate, you were tortured and sent to work in fields for 12 – 15 hour days, malnourished and dehydrated.
There are 343 different killing fields. In just four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot killed 1.38 million people.