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The Missing in Iraq: a harsh reality, an unsolved tragedy

29-08-2007 Feature

Not knowing the fate of family members missing as a result of armed conflict or violence is a harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, including Iraqis. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons and their extended families are desperate to know the whereabouts or fate of their loved ones.

 
Missing persons might have been captured, abducted, some perhaps killed and buried in unmarked graves, or they may lay in a hospital in critical conditions or linger in a hidden place of detention. In the midst of conflicts, family members might be separated as they flee the combat zones looking for a safe haven. Sometimes they are never reunited.

 An unsolved tragedy  

    

Over the last three decades, since the Iraq - Iran war (1980-88), Iraq has witnessed this phenomenon. Today, tens of thousands of families continue to look for their loved ones who are unaccounted for as result of the conflict.

 
© ICRC 
 
It is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure clarification of the fate of missing persons. 
     

According to Iraqi public sources, the number of persons missing si nce the Iraq-Iran war ranges from 375,000 to 1,000,000. This reflects two main facts:

  • The number of persons unaccounted for remains too difficult to estimate with any accuracy ;

  • Even if the minimum of 375,000 missing persons is correct, it reflects the scope of this unsolved tragedy faced by both families and missing persons. For each missing person there is not only one person suffering but there are whole families who wait for information or the return of their loved ones.

With the daily violence currently inflicted on the lives of Iraqis, tens of bodies are found every day, while countless persons go missing. While some of the bodies found can be identified, others cannot. According to official sources in Iraq, from 2006 until June 2007 some 20,000 bodies were brought to the Medical-Legal Institute in Baghdad (MLI). Almost 50 per cent of these bodies were unidentified and brought to morgues throughout the country. When unclaimed, they were buried in cemeteries. Since 2003, according to some sources, 4,000 unidentified bodies have been buried in special cemeteries in Najaf and Kerbala.

 A perilous process  

For an Iraqi family, the process of looking for a missing person may prove to be extremely complicated or even very dangerous, and sometimes impossible. One of the main factors is the current security situation. Today, it is well known that moving in certain areas in Iraq can be life-threatening. Therefore, families cannot move freely asking for the whereabouts of their missing relatives. They try to go through private channels such as individuals or charity organizations. The second step would be looking in hospitals, before inquiring at the MLI, knowing that Baghdad suffers today from the worst se curity conditions.

If the body is located, families have two possibilities:

  • Make a trip to recover the body, knowing that this might involve a high security risk. Some families make this choice, with sometimes terrible consequences: " After a three month search, my husband and I were told that our son's body is in Baghdad " , said Iman. " We decided to go there and on the way we were stopped by armed men who kidnapped my husband. I wish they had taken me along because now I am alone " .

  • The second possibility for families would be not to take the risk of recovering the body, even if they have some information regarding the possible whereabouts of the human remains. This means however continuing to live with doubts and a terrible anguish.

 "Each family is important"  

Another factor that complicates the search is the fact that families do not know where to ask. Today, there is no centralized source of information on missing persons. Families mostly work by speculation. This becomes even more complicated when families are contacted by anonymous individuals claiming to know the whereabouts of their missing relatives and asking for money in return for the information. Moreover, even if the family pays, the information might not be true.

 
© ICRC 
 
Relatives of the dead must complete the process of grieving in order to continue with their own lives 
     

" Recovering a body today has become a business " , says Ala'a. " I was contacted six times by different anonymous individuals claiming to know the whereabouts of my brother. I paid each of them between US $ 300 and 500. I was finally able to locate the body but till now I could not recover it due to the security situation. "

Solving the problem of missing persons is a great challenge for the Iraqi authorities. They have already taken some important steps:

  • Development of plans for the establishment of a centre to tackle the issue of the missing, within the Ministry of Human Rights, which is an indicator of a political will to solve the issue. This would centralize information from all governorates in Iraq on persons sought and on human remains found. This would make it easier for families to acquire information.

  • Promulgation of a law to protect graves sites (in February 2005)

Despite these efforts, thousands of families are still waiting for news., Persons tracing missing relatives contact the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a daily basis.

" Each family is important. Each family is waiting for news of their loved ones, " says Karl Mattli, head of ICRC's delegation for Iraq. " Some have been waiting for years and refuse to let go of their hope that the person they are looking for is still alive. The pain of the families is not just emotional. In addition to the problems experienced by all other victims of armed conflict or internal violence, the families suffer from the socioeconomic and legal consequences, notably when the breadwinner of the family goes missin g. "

Taking into consideration the critical security situation, the ICRC has set up five telephone lines ( " hotlines " ) in Iraq to assist families looking for news of missing persons or persons detained/interned in Iraq.

 Forensic obstacles  

One of the means to identify dead bodies brought to the MLI is DNA testing. However, there are certain obstacles that make this unavailable in Iraq. Currently, there is a dearth of forensic medical practitioners working at the MLI in Baghdad. The ICRC has since 2004 organized training for the doctors from the MLI and other relevant structures in governorates to meet current forensic demands in Iraq and ito provide scientific skills necessary for the proper management of human remains and human identification.

Even though DNA testing is currently not possible in Iraq, the MLI has started to collect DNA samples. Samples are kept in conducive conditions, so that it will be possible to process them even after a considerable period of time. However, this is not as easy as it may seem. " DNA testing is a complicated process, " says Dr. Maximo Duque Piedrahita, regional forensic advisor to the ICRC. " It would probably take one full year to do DNA testing and matching for about 20,000 unidentified bodies, even if there are ten specialists working seven days a week, 24 hours a day and with the best equipments available today. "

This said, DNA sampling remains crucial, but should not mask the necessity to collect directly from the families of the missing person the relevant personal information on the missing person (such as the type of clothes worn on the day of disappearance, possible x-rays of the teeth or bone fractures). The match of this information (ante mortem data provided by the family) with the post mortem data (data found on the dead bod y), will allow for identification in the future.

 A collective challenge  

The ICRC's main concern today is to ease the anguish of families waiting for news of missing relatives. The lack of clarity on the fate of persons unaccounted for and the absence of any support to their families leaves lasting wounds and deep resentments.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure clarification of the fate of missing persons and support to their relatives, the ICRC seeks to support their current efforts in these two respects. As a neutral and impartial organization, the ICRC role is exclusively humanitarian and the institution remains committed to facilitate the process undertaken by the responsible authorities in Iraq.

Given the complexity of the task and despite the many useful initiatives and projects carried out to date, clarifying the fate of the all the missing past and present and responding to the needs of their families will require time. The ICRC advocates on behalf of the families and their right to know that a centralized source of information is identified, promoted and supported by the central authorities in Iraq. To achieve this, it is crucial that all actors involved, whether governmental bodies or local organizations, coordinate their efforts, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the endeavor.

 

* * *
 
Testimony: Why didn't he come back yet? 
 
"My cousin was a lively person who loved life. One day, he signed up for military service hoping to serve his country. Ever since he left, we never heard from him again. We waited for his return night and day. One evening, I was listening to the radio broadcasting greetings from Iraqi detainees to their families. Suddenly I heard his voice stating his name and his province. I ran to my husband, tears running down my cheeks as if I had just heard the news of his death. The next day, I went to inform my aunt (his mother). I do not know how those moments passed. Were they moments of joy because my cousin was still alive or was it sadness because I might not see him again? My aunt waited every day on the doorstep of her house for my cousin to return. With time, her hair turned white and she could see only blackness but her son never came back. Every time I meet my aunt, she asks me: "are you sure you heard his name? Why didn't he come back yet?" My aunt's thoughts are dominated by confusion and hope and she still repeats her words: "Until the last day of my life, I will keep the hope to see him." 
     
 
* * *
 
Testimony: We all had the hope to see him again 
 
"My brother and his family were kidnapped in Baghdad. His wife and children were released after a short while. His wife had to pay a considerable amount of money for a proof of life. We all had the hope to see him again even though we stopped receiving news for more than a month. It was weeks after my brothers kidnapping that we knew he was killed. We know today where he is buried but we were not able to visit his grave. All we want now is to go there and say our last prayers, to say good-bye."    
     
 
* * *
 
Testimony: I am your father. I am back 
 
Leila is a child who lost her father in war. The family received his body and his death certificate. She was the only child of the family and a few months later, her mother died when the city was shelled. Following her parent's death, Leila was raised by her uncle. Years have passed and as she was in her classroom at school, she heard noise and commotion in the hallway. A short while later, the headmaster entered the classroom and asked Leila to join her in her office. As she entered, she saw a man who jumped at her, hugged her and started kissing her and shout: "I am your father. I am back… I am your father… I am your father". Leila stood still before she collapsed because of the shock and was then moved to the hospital. After a while, she recovered physically but never psychologically. Leila lives today at her uncle's house and sees her father from time to time.