Twenty years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, tens of thousands of combatants still unaccounted for
On 16 October the governments of Iran and Iraq, together with the ICRC, signed a memorandum of understanding that represents an important step towards easing the heavy burden of tens of thousands of bereaved Iraqi and Iranian families. The document establishes a clear framework for collecting information and sharing it between the two countries, and for handing over mortal remains. These tasks will be performed jointly by experts from both countries with ICRC support.
An unclosed chapter
The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 left behind a hard legacy for tens of thousands of families who are still waiting for news of their missing loved ones. These include large numbers of fighters who went missing in action and persons once held as prisoners of war (POWs) whose eventual fate remains unknown.
During the eight-year war, the ICRC visited and registered almost 40,000 Iranian and more than 67,000 Iraqi POWs. Many of these prisoners were subsequently voluntarily repatriated, with ICRC support. The whereabouts of others were confirmed by the ICRC after their release. However, tens of thousands of Iraqi and Iranian members of armed forces, including some who were POWs, remain unaccounted for today. Comprehensive records of all those missing because of the war – both combatants and civilians – simply do not exist.
The tip of the iceberg
POWs and those missing in action represent only a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who went missing in the Iran-Iraq war and in Iraq's successive conflicts over past decades.
Countless families in both countries continue to search for any information at all about what happened to their relatives – doing the rounds of hospitals, police stations, morgues, institutes of forensic medicine, and humanitarian organizations. With the prevailing insecurity in Iraq, these efforts often entail considerable risks.
Women who have lost their husbands, brothers or fathers struggle in their daily lives, especially if they have lost the breadwinner, not knowing if or how they will be able to put their ordeal behind them.
" When mortal remains were brought back from Iraq to Iran in 2003, " recalled an ICRC delegate who assisted in the handover operation, " mothers and sisters of missing Iranian soldiers gathered in the border town of Ghazre Shirin, carrying portraits of their loved ones and holding out the sad hope that they might be among them. "
Hussein tells the story of his parents who waited for their son Ahmed, an Iraqi soldier, until the last day of their lives. " My mother waited on the street for every convoy carrying returnees from Iran. She asked me once to make her a big paper sign with my brother's name on it, so that when she stood on the street, Ahmed would immediately see her from inside the bus. When she realized that Ahmed was not on the bus, she would visit all the returnees she could to ask about him. My brother never returned. My father died from sorrow and my mother kept her sign next to her bed until the last minute. "
A complicated task
Since the end of the war, the ICRC has supported both governments in their attempts to determine what happened to all those still unaccounted for.
" Today, the issue of missing persons in Iraq is proving to be extremely complicated, " said Jamila Hammami, ICRC delegate in charge of the missing persons file for Iraq. " There are several difficulties, including the high number of missing persons and the critical security conditions that do not allow the necessary follow-up on the ground. "
In Iraq, the Ministry of Human Rights is in charge of following up all cases of missing persons from the various conflicts over past decades. According to Iraqi public sources, the number of persons missing since the Iraq-Iran war ranges from 375,000 to 1,000,000.
Through the efforts of the Ministry and the ICRC, the whereabouts of more than 200 Iraqi POWs have been confirmed since 2003. Some returned to Iraq and requested certificates of detention from the ICRC or from the Ministry in order to facilitate claims for compensation and pensions.
In June 2008, the ICRC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi government to step up efforts to determine what happened to persons who were once registered by the ICRC as Iraqi and Iranian POWs and who remained unaccounted for.
A similar document was signed with the Iranian government in February 2004, laying the basis for a joint approach to the issue.
In Iran, several organizations are working in parallel on different aspects of the issue. Their efforts are being coordinated by the POWs and Missing Commission of the joint staff of the army. Whereas the Iranian Red Crescent Society is mainly collecting requests from the families, the Foundation for Martyrs and Veterans Affairs is providing services and assistance, and the Search and Recovery Commission, together with other organizations, is identifying mortal remains.
Many families would prefer to have confirmation that their missing relative is dead than to remain in the dark about what happened to them. " I think it is easier if you see the dead body of a person you're looking for. However, we looked everywhere. I don't know what else we can do but wait, " said Ashwak, an Iraqi woman who lost her brother.
After three decades, the suffering of the families of the missing in both Iraq and Iran is undiminished. " Twenty-three years ago he left, " said Oum Bassam whose son has remained unaccounted for since 1985. " I have waited for him and I will continue to wait. For me, he is still 19 years old. "
The document signed on 16 October between Iraq, Iran and the ICRC should renew the families'hopes for a speedy resolution to the question of what happened to their loved ones.
" We will not stop following up on this issue until every family finds closure, " said Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa. " On both sides, most of the families have been waiting for years, and we will do our utmost to uphold their right to know what befell their loved ones. "Read also: