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Bogolan to Baghdad: Textiles Tell the Story of Genocide in Iraq

Posted by Thomas M. Urban

Thomas M. Urban

In summer of 2006 I left my job working for Brown University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology to participate in a project in Iraq investigating mass graves for the Iraqi High Tribunal. My primary duty was analyzing "cultural objects" found in the graves of genocide victims. These objects included ballistic evidence, personal effects, and clothing. Clothing offered a particularly interesting window into the lives of the victims, revealing ethnic identity, gender, manner of death and more. Collectively and individually, clothing made a compelling line of evidence for telling the story of crimes against humanity.


Bogolan (mud cloth): This bogolanfini wrapper, formerly on display at a Haffenreffer Museum textiles exhibit, was produced in Mali by Kouraba Diarra and Field Collected by Claire Grace. Photo Courtesy of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.


I never had much interest in textiles as a category of material culture. Despite this, I found myself learning quite a bit about them. I had enrolled in a graduate seminar on museum studies during my senior year at Brown University. The course focused on developing an exhibit to be displayed in a new satellite gallery of Brown's anthropology museum. Much to my dismay, the course instructors had already decided that the exhibit would focus primarily on textiles. I wanted to gain some museum experience, so decided to continue with the course despite of my lack of interest in textiles. Ultimately, my contribution to the exhibit focused on pre-Columbian textiles from Peru and Bolivia. I considered myself to be more of an archaeologist than an ethnographer, so working with ancient textiles held more interest for me than working with some of the contemporary pieces in the museum’s collection. This was my way around the textile dilemma. After all, my curatorial contribution to the exhibit was archaeological: no touchy-feely interpretations of contemporary clothing here. I worked hard on my contribution to the exhibit, then washed my hands of the whole business of textiles, vowing never to turn back.

That all changed at the end of the year. With my graduation from Brown rapidly approaching, I found myself looking for a job. The textiles exhibit that I worked on, Warp Speeds, was set to open its doors on commencement weekend. The gallery needed an attendant, someone to answer questions, keep track of visitors, and safeguard the objects on display. A job notice was sent out looking to fill a position called gallery interpreter. It sounded like it could be fun. I responded to the job announcement and found out two days later that I was hired.

The first few days on the job, I made a thorough study of the exhibit text, thinking that this would be all that I needed to answer visitors’ questions about the exhibit. I was wrong. The exhibit text focused on examining globalization through the lens of textiles, and many people asked questions that simply were not covered by this topic:
Why do only elites wear this style? What do these geometric patterns mean? Can mud cloth be washed in a washing machine? When did our ancestors first start wearing clothes? Why do women dress differently than men and young differently than old?

Looking elsewhere to build a broader knowledge base, I began reading everything I could find on textiles. By the end of the first month on the job, I knew more about the textiles on display than I ever thought possible. Though I had already warmed up to textiles a bit by developing concepts for the exhibit, it was through this additional reading and interaction with visitors that I developed an appreciation for the symbolic meaning many of the pieces expressed, and developed a more penetrating understanding of how these objects fit into a larger cultural context. I learned that textiles are storehouses of meaning that communicate stories about individuals and societies. They may reflect ethnicity, gender, religion, social status, political affiliation and more. By the end of that month I could talk textiles all day long if need be.


Warp Speeds only ran for nine months. Around the time we were tearing everything down to make way for a new exhibit, I received a call about a potential summer project. The project director wanted an archaeologist with a background in forensics, military experience a plus, and experience working with and interpreting textiles. It sounded like the position was tailor-made for me. I had been involved in forensic archaeology for several years as a member of Forensic Archaeology Recovery of Rhode Island (FAR), and had served seven years in the U.S. army. I applied for the job. If hired, I would be working for the U.S. Justice Department’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) Mass Graves Investigation Team in Iraq. The goal of the project was to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Saddam Hussein regime. This was to be accomplished by a thorough examination of physical evidence. They wanted someone with a background in textiles to help process and interpret the clothing and other objects removed from mass graves. I sent in my resume immediately.


Fountain near Forensic Analysis Facility (FAF).
Photograph by Thomas Urban, 2006.

It was several weeks before I heard back. I had already assumed the position had gone to someone else. Then I got an email telling me that if I wanted the job, I was hired. In a few weeks I would be on a plane bound for Baghdad. Not my first deployment to a dangerous part of the world, but my first as a civilian. I knew it would be a bit of a shock. I would spend the summer of 2006 in Iraq. I would be turning 30 years old in Iraq just as I had spent my 21st year in Bosnia and my 18th year in Haiti. There was much to think about over the next couple of weeks.

About a week before my departure date, I headed to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a crash course in textile conservation. I had plenty of experience now on the interpretive side, but wanted more on the practical side. I was trained on handling, cleaning, and storing textiles from Vuka Roussakis, a textile conservator at the museum. She wished me luck and I caught a bus back to Providence. A few days later I was on a plane bound for California to complete in-processing and hazardous environment training. From there it was on to Kuwait to spend several days awaiting a military flight into Baghdad.

The flight into Baghdad was aboard a military cargo plane packed with both soldiers and civilian contractors. Everyone was issued a kevlar helmet and vest in Kuwait to be worn on the flight and used for the rest of their stay in Iraq. Most people took this protective gear off once airborne, however, as the temperature in the plane hovered around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The flight lasted about an hour. After arriving at the airstrip and traveling another forty-five minutes or so by car, I finally reached the Forensic Analysis Facility (FAF); a series of laboratories set up in army tents. This is where I would spend much of the summer. I met the rest of the team, and got settled into my new home.

The next morning I began my first day of work as a cultural objects analyst. The leader of the cultural objects team was a Costa Rican social anthropologist named Ariana Fernandez. She had participated in previous mass graves investigations in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, and instructed me on the various protocols of the work at hand.

I cannot relay many of the specifics of the work done in Iraq because a statement of non-disclosure binds me. I can say, however, that textiles came to play a major role in constructing a case for genocide. Textiles provided a line of evidence to compare against and integrate with skeletal profiling. For example, a determination of biological sex based on skeletal remains could be compared against a determination of gender that was based primarily on clothing. Additionally, injuries from gunshots and other trauma often left tell tale signs on the bones that could be compared to defects and blood stains in the clothing, thereby offering a complementary interpretation of physical trauma. Textiles could even indicate soft tissue injuries that left no trauma on the bones. More important, however, was the role of textiles as markers of ethnic identity. In order to make a case for genocide, it had to be demonstrated that specific ethnic groups were targeted for annihilation. While osteological evidence told a great deal about the victims, it could not tell the whole story. The ethnicity of the victims was determined by the clothing with which they communicated their identities.

Some team members observed that working with the bones of a victim is much less personal. The clothing really tells you more about who a person was and allows you to form a more complete picture of that person in life. From a bullet riddled shirt taken from the tiny torso of a young child, to the blood stained dress of a pregnant woman, the clothing told many horrific stories about who these people were and how they died. The most disturbing piece of evidence that I encountered was a child's shirt that pictured a cartoon character playing soccer. The shirt was very small and heavily stained with blood. To me, the cartoon character was a powerful symbol that made the youth and innocence of this victim very apparent and easy to connect with on a human level, in a way that bones could not. I wondered what this child looked like, and what he would say if he were here.

It was a number of months after returning from Iraq, that I read in a newspaper about evidence collected by the mass graves team being presented at the Iraqi High Tribunal. When our program director, Dr. Michael Trimble, presented our findings in court, the story of the victims was finally told. For six hours he stood before a transfixed audience that included Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti (Chemical Ali)
and gave the victims back a voice that had been silenced in a hail of bullets, cries of terror drowned out by the report of gunfire so many years before. Their story of suffering and injustice was finally told, and textiles helped to tell that story.


Thank you for your comment Mr. Vanderleun. Perhaps someone will write a book about the investigation of these crimes someday.

A moving and informative story. I for one would like to know more about your experiences in Iraq. Very compelling, but somehow incomplete. One would think that there's material lurking in the background that would make a book.

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