Fate of Iraqis Gone Missing Haunts Those Left Behind

Published on
by
the New York Times

Fate of Iraqis Gone Missing Haunts Those Left Behind

by
Timothy Williams

The six remaining children of Anam Diham, whose 13-year-old son went to buy vegetables one afternoon and never returned. She has exhausted the family’s life savings looking for him. (Christoph Bangert for The New York Times)

BAGHDAD - During the worst of Iraq's sectarian violence three years ago, Anam Diham's 13-year-old son went out to buy vegetables one afternoon. He never returned.

Since then, Ms. Diham has exhausted her family's life savings trying to find the boy, who spent his days with his father searching Baghdad's streets for dropped coins.

She has traveled to big American prisons and small-town Iraqi cemeteries. And as have hundreds of other people, mostly women in black abayas, she often waits patiently in line outside government offices, waiting to meet with officials she hopes will have news. They never do. After all this time, no one can say whether her son is dead or alive.

"All I need is to find some clue about him," Ms. Diham, a mother of seven, said recently as she pored over hundreds of photographs of unidentified bodies at a morgue. "I'd like to build a grave to visit him. Nothing more than that."

She made it through about a quarter of the photos before she left, too upset to continue.

Ten thousand Iraqis are listed as missing since the American invasion six years ago - although the Iraqi government acknowledges that its figures are probably only a small fraction of the actual number. Most of those who disappeared are believed to be dead. But even those whose bodies have been found are not always identified quickly; Dr. Munjid Salah al-Deen, the manager of Baghdad's central morgue, said his staff was working to identify 28,000 bodies from 2006 to 2008 alone.

The authorities are hampered by some of the cruelties of war and the poverty it brings: some bodies are mutilated and hard to identify, and there is little money for new forensic workers to handle the huge caseload.

But families also question the Iraqi government's resolve in investigating cases, and groups like the Red Cross have become involved on the issue. "The problem of the missing is enormous," said Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the Iraq office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "Families have the right to know, and governments have an obligation to help find out what happened to their loved ones."

In some cases, the missing have been kidnapped and are released after ransoms are paid. Other times, their bodies are found years after they disappeared, after being fished out of a river or dug up from one of the mass graves that continue to be discovered around the country every few weeks.

Relatives say the lack of information from the government has left them in limbo: not wanting to admit that a loved one has probably been killed, but not believing that he or she is still alive either.

The toll of not knowing is not just emotional; in Iraq's male-dominated society, there is also a practical consequence.

In most cases, until a missing male head of a household is declared dead by the government, the wife is unable to collect benefits, hold a funeral, remarry or gain access to the family's bank account, usually in the husband's name, for four years.

Some families have resorted to claiming a body they know is not their loved one's, so the women can get access to the money they need to live, a Baghdad morgue official said.

Kamil Amin, a director at Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights, the agency charged with helping people track the missing, said recently that he believed that more should be done to aid the families of those who disappeared, especially those whose primary wage earners are missing.

His ministry, Mr. Amin said, is doing its best to cope with a heavy caseload. "The government is morally responsible to these families," he said. "We think almost all of the missing have been killed by terrorists, but the legal system needs evidence."

There are a variety of factors contributing to the delays in solving cases, according to aid organizations and the government. Iraq has only one DNA lab and a limited ability to freeze samples; almost half of the country's provinces have no forensic pathologists; and a lack of coordination among government agencies means that the Iraqi Army and the police frequently remove bodies from graves without first informing the Human Rights Ministry, often losing valuable identifying evidence in the process.

Further, Iraq has no central database to try to link the more than 15,000 unidentified bodies that have been buried anonymously in the past few years with a list of names of the missing. There is also no record of victims of sectarian violence who have been buried informally in unmarked plots.

Even if family members think they have found a missing relative, they often need the help of government labs to be sure. Many victims of sectarian violence were beheaded, had limbs amputated or had holes drilled into their skulls, making them less recognizable.

The bodies of others have decomposed, leaving only bits of bone, tattered clothing and plastic sandals as clues.

Identification sometimes comes down to a guess, a dim memory of a shirt worn the day a husband disappeared or of which tooth a son had lost years before in an accident.

Ghaniah Ayed Mudhi, who lives in the industrial city of Baiji, in northern Iraq, has had a brother, two cousins and two brothers-in-law disappear since 2006.

Her brother, Muhammad Ayed Mudhi, left behind 4 children and 11 other dependents. He disappeared after being pulled out of his truck at a checkpoint. Later, a stranger came to the family's house demanding the equivalent of $7,000 for his return. The family paid the ransom, but Mr. Ayed Mudhi, who would be 29 if alive, remains missing.

In the Shuala neighborhood of Baghdad, Fadhilah Harfish has kept the room that belonged to her 25-year-old son, Muhammad, as he left it - just a little tidier. The bed is made. The curtains are drawn. His shirts hang neatly in a closet. Relatives removed photos of Muhammad from the house because Ms. Harfish sometimes spent hours crying over them. The family has visited morgues, prisons and graveyards, and has even communicated with members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Mahdi Army militia, to no avail.

Muhammad, who trained as a teacher, had been working as a taxi driver, a common job for Iraqis who cannot find career-oriented work. Driving cabs was also among the most dangerous jobs during the height of the sectarian killings. He disappeared one morning in December 2007, early in his workday.

"I can't sleep at night," said Ms. Harfish, sobbing. "I can't forget him. He's like my breath."

The family of Ms. Diham, whose 13-year-old son disappeared while buying vegetables, has been squatting at a former army base in Baghdad's Amiriya neighborhood.

They survive by recycling aluminum cans scavenged from a large garbage dump a few dozen yards away.

The glass on their windows has been knocked out by explosions from car bombs, and there is no proper front door, only a strip of white cloth.

One of the rooms is filled with piles of empty cans waiting to be bagged. Among the family's few possessions are two white mules and a television set.

Ms. Diham said she had decided to give up looking for her son, Meethaq, out of frustration and fatigue. But her husband, Basim, who cries at the mention of the child's name, vowed to keep searching.

"This case has exhausted our money," he said, sitting on a worn carpet. "But I won't stop until I find something."

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