Relatives Search For Missing In Iraqi Mass Graves Missing relatives and loved ones are slowly being found in mass graves in Iraq, though identification is a challenge. Despite registration of missing people, officials are having trouble simply locating the bodies.
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Relatives Search For Missing In Iraqi Mass Graves

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Relatives Search For Missing In Iraqi Mass Graves

Relatives Search For Missing In Iraqi Mass Graves

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Iraq, the vicious sectarian violence over the last few years has decreased for now. But many Iraqis can't move on. Their family members and friends are still unaccounted for, thousands are missing.

NPR's Baghdad correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the efforts to find them.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq is revealing its evil buried secrets. 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 there would be more. They called the police. So far, 11 corpses have been uncovered.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Mr. ALA'A HASAN: (Through translator) They were missing for a long time. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This isn't the first mass grave that's been found recently, says Hasan, and it won't be the last.

Mr. HASAN: (Through translator) They will find others. Many families have already come here to look for their missing sons and daughters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are thousands of other families across Iraq that are also still searching for those who have disappeared.

Mr. SAFA ADNAN: (Arabic Spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 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. Safa says his brother was never heard from again.

Mr. ADNAN: (Through translator) I deliberately haven't put a picture of my brother up in the house. And whenever I find a photo of his, I hide it because my mother and I don't know what happened to him. He's not dead, but he's not living either.

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

Mr. ADNAN: (Through translator) There are different charities that help look for missing people. We've been to them all. They haven't found anything about my brother. We've tried everything possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across town is the Ministry of Human Rights. It's 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. From 2005 to 2007, the ministry has registered 7,086 missing people.

Mr. SAAD SULTAN (Head of Humanitarian Affairs, Ministry of Human Rights): I have some families coming. They have six, seven members from their families kidnapped in one vehicle. They have no information. Where are they? It is a terrible tragedy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A 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, there is rarely a successful resolution.

Out of the over 7,000 cases on its books, the ministry has so far only resolved 100. The reasons are many. Iraq's authorities only began to use DNA analysis a few months ago. In the days when over 150 bodies a day were turning up at Baghdad's morgue, the corpses would be shipped quickly off to burial in Najaf. Fourteen thousand corpses are interred in the John Doe cemetery there. 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.

Mr. SULTAN: It is a lot, it is a lot, it is a lot. And there is a huge locations in different places. Until now, we have information about where, but we don't want to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sultan says he has special investigators and archeologists. They're 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. And that means that, in all likelihood, no one will face justice for the crimes they've committed.

But for now, justice is not what the families of the 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 at the charred corpse, a young man shot in the head, a man that's been garroted with barbed wire, a bearded man whose face is contorted in a grimace of pain. Some of these 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. There's barely anything to identify them as human.

Also watching is Majda Bakir, a 53-year-old woman with tribal tattoos on her face. This is her third visit. Her nephew had been missing since March.

Ms. MAJDA BAKIR: (Through translator) I know his face, and from his face I will be able to identify him.

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

Ms. BAKIR: (Through translator) I'm crying. As I watch their pictures, I cry. They were all our sons and relatives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

(Soundbite of man shouting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed Ziboun is a musician. His brother has been missing for four years now. The pain, he says, has not lessened.

Mr. MOHAMMED ZIBOUN: (Through translator) Three months ago, people came to me and said they saw him in the city. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 this song on the Iraqi lute, called the oud, dedicated to all those who are still missing in Iraq.

Mr. ZIBOUN: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

Mr. ZIBOUN: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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