Iraq: Personal accounts of visits to detained relatives
In Iraq, where the security situation, vast distances and lack of means can prevent people from visiting a detained relative, the ICRC often steps in to help. When the visits take place, there are many stories to tell. Here are a few of them.
In 2013, 118 family members visited their loved ones in Iraqi places of detention under a programme run by the ICRC in cooperation with prison authorities. Just knowing that they could sometimes see their relatives gave them the strength of mind to overcome the daily challenges and the suffering caused by the absence of their sons, fathers and grandfathers.
Sakna Mohammad went with her two grandchildren and their mother to Nassiriya prison to visit her son, Abdul Sattar, shown here talking to Myriam Suard, an ICRC delegate./© ICRC S. Baqer
Sakna Mohammad is 65 years old. She came from the northern Iraqi province of Mosul to visit her son, Abdul Sattar, who has been detained for four years in Nassiriya prison, in the south of the country. Her grandchildren, Ali and Hala, made the journey with her to meet their father for the first time in a year and a half.
"I couldn't sleep last night. I kept thinking about seeing my father again and how he was going to be. I prepared the clothes I was going to wear and woke up early to do up my hair so that I would look nice when my father saw me. I was in a hurry as we went to the place where we would meet my father. When I saw him, I just ran to him. This is all that I and my brother wanted," said Hala.
"Seeing my father made me really happy. Those were the best hours of my life. My father asked me about my schoolwork. He told me to take care of my grandmother, mother and sister, as I'm the only man in the house now," said Ali.
The visit took place at a convenient time, just before the start of the school year. "My father's words and his encouragement will help me to do well in school," said Ali.
Hamdiya* hugging her husband, detained in Fort Suse Prison, after 10 years of separation./ © ICRC S. Baqer
For over 10 years, Hamdiya* had been unable to make the 10-hour trip to see her husband, detained in Fort Suse Fort prison. Finally the visit was about to happen…
Hamdiya is the mother of five daughters and two sons. After her husband was arrested, in October 2003, months passed without any news of him until a "Red Cross message" arrived one morning from him with the news that he was in a prison. The country had plunged into turmoil, and a journey from the southern Iraqi town of Samawa up north to Suleymanieh province could be risky and complicated, especially for a woman travelling by herself. In addition, the financial cost of such a journey would be a heavy burden for a woman who was working hard as a seamstress to support her family.
But such a visit became possible with support from the ICRC. Hamdiya was even able to bring adaughter, Reem* and a son, Hamoudi*
Tears rolled down her face as Hamdiya tried to describe her feelings before the visit: "I'm so happy I'm going to see him again. I'm not going to let the suffering the kids and I have been through spoil the moment."
Reem, 21 years old, was so emotional that she couldn't say anything. She just sobbed uncontrollably. It wasn't clear whether her tears were in anticipation of the happy moments awaiting her or due to fear that so much happiness could not be real. Little Hamoudi, 10 years old, cried too.
Only after spending over two hours with the man they had come to see did a big smile return to everyone's face.
"All my feelings and emotions of the last 10 years intensified during the moments I spent with my father. No words can describe that," Reem said.
For Hamoudi the visit was particularly special as he had never seen his father before.
"I told him about my school and about football and about FC Barcelona," he said.
Hamoudi added that football is his hobby and he is a big fan of FC Barcelona. Asked if his father shared his love for Barcelona, he replied: "yes, my father does … and everyone in my family does, except my eldest brother."
Halima Jawad went to Nassiriya prison to visit her son. She was accompanied by his wife and his two sons, Ali and Hamid. Ali is shown hanging on his father. Hamid is sitting beside them./© ICRC S. Baqer
When Halima, 60 years old, arrived at Nassiriya prison to visit her son Ahmed, she was accompanied by his wife and two kids, Ali, 6, and Hamid, 8.
Halima looked tired and worried. Her journey from Kirkuk province to Nassiriya city had been long and full of apprehension.
Halima had not seen her son for over a year. She heard not even heard his voice on the phone for four months. "After that, we lost contact with him," she said.
"When my son got arrested, I became his family's breadwinner. Although I'm an old woman now, I clean up in the city's giant wheat mills in order to earn a living. All that I want now is to make sure Ahmed is well and to see his face. I'm afraid I may die before I can see him. I can hear my heart beating as I talk to you right now," said Halima at the prison entrance.
Ahmed’s wife talked of how his two children were eager to see their father: "Besides, we really need his support. We miss him a lot."
After the visit, the two women's tears made it clear how much they missed Ahmed.
"It was a visit full of emotions," said Ahmed's wife. "My two little kids ran to their father, hugged him and started telling him all about their adventures. Ahmed asked me about each of them, and even about how they were doing in school."
Adel* hugging his father in Fort Suse Prison. © ICRC/H. Mustafa
Adel* was only 11 when his father was locked up in a prison in Baghdad. Soon afterwards he lost his mother. Ever since, as the oldest person left in the family, he has been responsible for looking after his two younger brothers and a sister.
For Adel, who lived in Basra, it was not too hard to visit his father when he was held in Baghdad. But then his father was transferred much farther away, to Fort Suse Prison, 35 km north-west of Sulaymaniya, in the northern part of Iraq. A daily worker like Adel could hardly afford to travel so far. In addition, he would have to travel alone through unsafe areas.
Nevertheless, he did manage to reach Fort Suse Prison. There he met people who, like himself, were visiting detained relatives, with help from the ICRC. For almost all of them, it was the first time ever to visit Fort Suse Prison. All of them were going through the same daily struggle: being apart from their beloved ones.
For a 21-year-old young man, Adel had a very modest wish for the future:
"I would like to eat at the same table with my father again, to live together with him under the same roof. I wish for small things I was deprived of for almost half my life"
Amana Farhan and her daughter Kawthar receiving help with accommodation and transport expenses at ICRC outstation in Nassiriya./© ICRC S. Baqer
Amana, 45, from Hawija in the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk, had not seen her husband for two years. A mother of five whose her first son suffers from heart disease, she had to support her family on her own, taking whatever jobs she could get as a daily worker.
But now she had arrived at Nassiriya prison, in southern Iraq, where she would see her husband again. And the visit was going to be extra special because her 10-year-old daughter Kawthar was there with her.
"My mother would never take me to see my father, since she couldn't afford the trip for both of us," said Kawthar. "I cried and cried, really hard, and finally she agreed to take me."
Kawthar was scared and confused as she entered the prison for the first time.
"I didn't know where we should go, but a nice woman from the ICRC talked to us, and that was reassuring. Then she helped us find my father," she said.
"When I saw him I couldn't believe my eyes. I ran and hugged him tight. I was crying and laughing at the same time. My father asked me about my brothers. I kissed him on behalf of my all brothers. I hugged him all through the visit while he held my mother's hand. I felt very lucky today."
"Thank God, I was able to see my husband," said Amana. "I'll go back to my children with good news about their father. All this happened with the help of the ICRC. I had never thought I would be able to come to Nassiriya and see my husband, since I couldn't afford it. You are really angels."
* Names have been changed to protect the people involved.
In this video, we follow ICRC staff as they visit Suleymanieh Central Prison in Northern Iraq and explain the nature of their work.
The video is followed by an interview of Patrick Youssef, head of the ICRC's delegation in Iraq, explains more about the purpose of these visits