Relatives Search For Missing In Iraqi Mass Graves

Body Bags in Baquba, Iraq i i

Body bags are loaded onto a truck to be taken to a mass grave in the northeastern city of Baquba on June 9. Twenty-five unidentified bodies were laid to rest after two months at the morgue, waiting to be identified. Across Iraq, many bodies are brought to hospitals and are never identified by relatives. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Body Bags in Baquba, Iraq

Body bags are loaded onto a truck to be taken to a mass grave in the northeastern city of Baquba on June 9. Twenty-five unidentified bodies were laid to rest after two months at the morgue, waiting to be identified. Across Iraq, many bodies are brought to hospitals and are never identified by relatives.

AFP/Getty Images

In Iraq, the sectarian violence of the last few years has abated for now, but many Iraqi families cannot move on. Their loved ones are still unaccounted for, suspected of being killed by militias or insurgents.

They are "the missing," and there are thousands of them.

Iraq is revealing its buried secrets as a group of men dig in a schoolyard in the city of Ramadi in western Iraq. They have made a gruesome discovery.

Ala'a Hasan was just finishing his shift rebuilding the school when they found the first dead body; they knew from experience that there would be more. They called the police, and so far 11 corpses have been uncovered.

"They were missing for a long time," Hasan says. "Al-Qaida told their families they had been arrested, but the fact is they were buried here, piled one on top of the other, just like bricks."

Not The First, Not The Last

This is not the first mass grave that has been found recently, Hasan says, and it won't be the last.

"They will find others. Many families have already come here to look for their missing sons and daughters," he says.

There are thousands of other families across Iraq that are also still searching for those who have disappeared.

Safa Adnan walks around his brother's room pointing to his stereo and his computer. Everything is as 25-year-old Laheeb left it, Safa Adnan says.

Safa's brother and his father were kidnapped together in 2006 in Baghdad. The family paid a $20,000 ransom, to no avail.

The father's body was found floating in the Tigris River a few weeks later, but his brother was never heard from again.

The Paradox Of Hope And Grief

"I deliberately haven't put a picture of my brother up in the house, and whenever I find a picture of his, I hide it because my mother and I don't know what happened to him," Adnan says. "He is not a dead person, yet he is not a living person, either."

This is the terrible paradox experienced by the relatives of those who are missing. They are caught in limbo — driven by both hope and grief — in a constant search for answers.

"There are different charities that help look for missing people," Adnan says. "We've been to them all, but they haven't found anything about my brother. We've tried everything possible."

Across town is the Ministry of Human Rights. It is in charge of registering the missing, and protecting and investigating mass graves. But the head of humanitarian affairs at the ministry, Saad Sultan, says that both tasks have been difficult.

Registration, But Rarely Resolution

From 2005 to 2007, the ministry has registered 7,086 missing people.

"I have some families, they have six, seven members of their families kidnapped in one vehicle," Sultan says. "They have no information. Where are they? It is a terrible tragedy."

The real number of the missing, he says, is probably much higher. Not everyone comes to the ministry to register, because the process is a difficult one — people in other provinces must travel all the way to Baghdad to do it.

And even if they do register, there is rarely a successful resolution. Out of the more than 7,000 cases on its books, the ministry has so far has only resolved 100.

The reasons are many: Iraq's authorities only began to use DNA analysis a few months ago, and in the days when more than 150 bodies a day were turning up at Baghdad's morgue, the corpses would be shipped off quickly to burial in Najaf. As many as 14,000 corpses are interred there in the John Doe cemetery.

Others may be buried in as yet undiscovered mass graves.

Sultan says that as the security situation improves, more and more mass graves from Iraq's recent civil war are being found.

"It is a lot, it is a lot, it is a lot," Sultan says. "And there is huge locations in different places. Until now, we have information about where, but we do not want to go."

Compromised Evidence, No Justice

Sultan says he has special investigators and archeologists who are supposed to analyze the sites, but the perpetrators of the crimes are still at large and could threaten a human rights team.

Instead, the sites are usually quickly dug up by grieving family members, leaving evidence compromised. That means that, in all likelihood, no one will face justice for the crimes they have committed.

But for now, justice is not what families with missing relatives are looking for.

At Baghdad's central morgue, in a large room, rows of chairs face a huge screen. This is where relatives come to look at the photographs of the unidentified bodies that have been recovered. Their hope is to simply recognize their loved one in the gruesome slide show.

The pictures are flashing silently by: a charred corpse, a young man shot in the head, a man who's been garroted with barbed wire, a bearded man whose face is contorted in a grimace of pain. Some of the pictures are simply bones and rags: a yellow label pinned to the remains — Mahmoudiya, Baghdad, a date. These are the victims who ended up in mass graves, and there is barely anything to identify them as human.

Watching the slides is Majda Bakir, a 53-year-old woman with tribal tattoos on her face. This is her third visit — her nephew has been missing since March.

"I know his face, and from his face I will be able to identify him," Bakir says.

She flinches at some of the images — mutilated corpses, many unrecognizable. She's come here to spare her sister — the missing man's mother — of this experience. She confesses this duty has taken its toll.

"I'm crying. As I watch their pictures, I cry," Bakir says. "They were all our sons and relatives."

She watches the whole reel, but there is no recognizable image of her nephew.

A father and a son, though, find what they have both dreaded and longed for. They see their relative among the images on the screen. The missing man's brother convulses in grief — he has to be carried out.

The father shouts in agony: "This is my second son killed."

Solace Through Music

Mohammed Ziboun is a musician whose brother has been missing for four years. The pain, he says, has not lessened.

"Three months ago, people came to me and said that they saw him in the city," Ziboun says. "He was limping, dirty and badly dressed. Maybe it was someone else who looked like him, but maybe it was him. I have hope that he is alive."

Ziboun says that when he's driving around the streets, he looks for his brother in the crowds. He will not be at peace until he finds him, he says.

His only solace is music — he composed a song on the Iraqi lute, called an oud, dedicated to all those who are still missing in Iraq.

"The soul is a stranger after you left," he sings. "Day and night I wait by the door, hoping you will be back one day."

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