From archives: Baghdad. Portrait of a family, one of their relatives has been missing since the Iraq-Kuwait war. Credit: Mohammad Jawad Al Hamzah

A broken heart never healed: Why families of the missing in the Middle East deserve answers

Statement 30 August 2021 Iraq Syria Lebanon Libya

**By Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC Regional Director for the Near and Middle East.

“The least I can do is keep searching.. the story has to have an ending” Poignant words from 34-year-old Adib who, along with his family,  is searching for news about his grandfather who went missing during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon.  Adib never met his grandfather, but he looks a lot like him, a bitter-sweet reminder for the family who, over forty years on, still have no answers about what happened.

People go missing when wars are fought. In the Middle East, where new conflicts continually erupt, eclipsing those of the past, the number of people unaccounted for is truly shocking. In a region already weighed down by violence, insecurity, and deprivation, a lack of answers about a missing loved one often equals open-ended mental and emotional torture.

As we mark the International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August, it’s important to remember that the wars consigned to the history books are still unfinished business for many families. Did you know, for example, that Iraq has one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world? Ask any Iraqi family and they are likely to have a story about someone who never came home. 

I find it hard to fathom that tens of thousands of fathers, sons, and brothers remain missing from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Tracking down all these people remains an arduous task, despite our best efforts. For the sake of the families, though, we must keep going. And states should continue to play their part too. Each individual is important.

In many cases, time is running out. I will never forget the story of Nabiha*, the mother of Ahmed, a young Iraqi soldier sent to fight in Iran in the 1980s. Until the day she died, Nabiha waited on the street, in the hopes that her son would be aboard one of the convoys bringing home returning troops. Each time a convoy passed, she held up a piece of paper with Ahmed’s name on it, hoping he would see it. But when she passed away like an old woman, that paper sign was still by her bed. Her lifelong search remained unfulfilled.

No one’s life should end with a broken heart. Yet, sadly, as a result of historical and ongoing conflicts, generations of families in the Middle East may have no other alternative. Empty chairs, abandoned clothes, precious photos, and missed birthdays are all part of life for the families of those missing.

Hope fuels wounded hearts, and the power of determination cannot be underestimated. In March this year, the remains of 20 Kuwaiti nationals who went missing during the 1991 Gulf War were returned to their families who, after 30 painful years, finally gave their loved ones a proper burial. In Lebanon, where thousands remain unaccounted for, the passing of Law 105 on the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared in November 2018 -- which led to the creation of a national commission to clarify the fate of the missing -- represented a milestone for families.

These examples show what is possible. Even if wars,  displacement, and migration are inevitable, missing people don’t have to be. The work on the missing requires perseverance and determination. It can take years of work to uncover answers. Governments, armed forces, and armed groups have an obligation to provide information that will help bring closure to families waiting for their loved ones to return. States must also continue to do more to support families through the search, recovery, and forensic identification process.

Nabiha died with a wounded heart. Many more families face the same fate. The work to give grieving families closure must continue.

*names were changed to protect family privacy. 

**You can find the statement in Arabic here on the Alarabiya website