Thousands missing since war began

When 53-year-old Tina Abdallah celebrated the fall of deceased former President Saddam Hussein in March 2003, she had no idea that her suffering had just begun. Four years on, the mother of two is desperate for news about her sons who have disappeared in separate incidents following the US-led invasion of 2003.

“During Saddam’s time, people were being arrested and sometimes families couldn’t get any information about their loved ones. But the proposed democracy hasn’t changed this reality. My two sons have disappeared and I can’t get any information. I don’t even know if they're dead,” Tina said.

“I have gone to NGOs, the Ministry of Human Rights and police departments looking for them but no one could help me. My last attempt was in the US-run prisons, but it was even harder to get to speak with someone there because of the huge number of people with the same problem as me,” she added.

Because of unrelenting violence hampering all efforts to collect data, the number of people who have disappeared in Iraq since 2003 is not known. But aid workers estimate the figure to be in the tens of thousands.

“Based on studies done by local NGOs, it is probable that at least 15,000 Iraqis have disappeared in the past four years of occupation,” Mukhaled al-A’ani, a spokesman for local Iraqi NGO Human Rights Association (HRA), said.

''My two sons have disappeared and I can’t get any information. I don’t even know if they are dead.''

According to Diar Hassnun, a spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights, the ministry is working to come up with an official figure for a report it is compiling.

In February 2005, the ministry set up a National Centre for Missing and Disappeared Persons (NCMDP) to help relatives find out what had happened to their loved ones. The initial focus of the centre was to help recover mass graves and identify those who had gone missing since 1978. Now, because of the sheer number of concerned relatives, it is putting more emphasis on finding people who have recently gone missing.

“When this centre was first set up, we didn’t expect to receive so many claims of recently disappeared Iraqis. There are hundreds of new missing people every year and since 2006 the situation has worsened in tandem with the sectarian violence,” said Hassnun, adding that more than 200,000 people disappeared under Saddam’s government, many of whom are still expected to be found in mass graves across Iraq.

Families ignored by the government

But families claim that they have been ignored by the government, and are left on their own to search for their missing relatives, hoping they are being held prisoners somewhere.

“I don’t want to think my son is dead,” said Abu Khalid, 58, whose 35-year-old son has been missing for the past two years. “I prefer imagining that he is being held in a prison somewhere, as was common during Saddam’s time. But if he’s not in a prison, I need to find his body at least and stop suffering and dreaming that one day he might come back. I should be able to tell his sons that their father is dead.”

''Based on studies done by local NGOs, it is probable that at least 15,000 Iraqis have disappeared in the past four years of occupation.''

HRA’s al-A’ani said there are daily reports of hundreds of missing Iraqis and that NGOs are doing there best to help relatives find them.

“We are working very hard with families who are trying to get information about their missing loved ones. Unfortunately, we can’t get information in every place,” al-A’ani said. “But compared to the number of missing people in 2005, figures for 2006 and 2007 have increased by at least 50 percent.”

“Information on less than 10 percent of those missing has been conveyed to their families. Most of the time they [missing persons] had been killed,” he added.

But Tina Abdallah clings to the hope that her two sons are alive and will never forget the days on which they disappeared.

Tina said that the first incident happened in August 2004. Aziz, her 28-year-old son, went to his work in a bakery, two weeks before his marriage, and never returned home. Her second son, 25-year-old Ibraheem, never came home from classes at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University, where he was in his final year.

“I go to the morgue every two days but nothing so far. My husband died from cardiac problems 10 years ago and since then my boys had been taking care of me. Now, I don’t even have anything to eat as well as being recently displaced and suffering emotionally from the disappearance of my beloved sons,” Tina said.

as/ar/ed