Iraqis haunted by disappearances after Saddam Hussein’s fall | News

Iraqis haunted by disappearances after Saddam Hussein’s fall | News

When he first heard that US troops had toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi engineer Hazem Mohammed thought he would finally find his brother, who had been shot and dumped in a mass grave after a failed uprising against the leadership. by Saddam in 1991.

Mohammed’s hopes were not the only ones alive after the United States-led invasion in March 2003. Relatives of the tens of thousands of people who were killed or disappeared under the dictator believe they will soon learn the fate of lost loved ones.

Twenty years later, Mohammed, who was hit by two bullets but survived the massacre that killed his brother, and countless other Iraqis are still waiting for answers.

Dozens of mass graves have been found, testimony to atrocities committed under Saddam’s Baath Party. But the work to identify the victims of the historic assassination has been slow and slow in the chaos and conflict that has engulfed it Iraq in the last two decades.

“When I saw how mass graves were being opened, randomly, I decided to keep the location of the grave a secret until there was a stronger state,” Mohammed said.

As the excavations progressed, more atrocities were committed in the sectarian conflict and amid the rise and fall of armed groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS)as well as Shia Muslim militias.

Now Iraq has one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which says estimates of the total range up to hundreds of thousands of people.

It was another 10 years before Mohammed led a team of experts in the area where he, his brother and others were brought together as Saddam’s troops crushed a major Shia uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

At the time, they were forced to kneel next to trenches dug outside the southern city of Najaf, and shot. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed by Saddam’s forces during his rule.

The remains of 46 people were exhumed from the site, which is now surrounded by farms, but Mohammed’s brother was never found. He believes more bodies are still there, unidentified.

“A country that does not deal with its past will not be able to deal with the present or the future,” he said. “At the same time, I sometimes forgive the government. They have too many … victims to deal with.”

A mother is standing next to her child
Ikhlas Hamid Talal, 43, whose wife went missing as their area was retaken from ISIL in 2016, at his home in Saqlawiya, Iraq on February 2, 2023 [Saba Kareem/Reuters]

Painful progress

According to the Martyrs Foundation – a government body involved in identifying victims and compensating their relatives – more than 260 mass graves have been excavated so far, with dozens still closed.

But resources are limited for such a massive undertaking. In a section of the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, a team of about 100 people processes from mass graves, one site at a time.

Department head Yasmine Siddiq said they had identified and matched DNA samples of about 2,000 individuals, from about 4,500 exhumed corpses.

On the shelves of his storage room are the remains of victims from the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 – skulls, cutlery, watches, and other items that could help identify the victims.

Forensic efforts are being completed by archivists studying stacks of documents from Saddam’s Baath Party, which was disbanded after his ouster, for the names of missing persons who have yet to be identified.

Mehdi Ibrahim, an official at the Martyrs Foundation, said that every week his team identifies about 200 new victims. The names were published on social media.

So far, the foundation has processed about half of the one million documents it holds, just a fraction of Iraq’s scattered archives. Most of the Baath Party-era documents are held by the government, while others were destroyed after the invasion.

Some atrocities are diagnosed more quickly than others.

According to Siddiq, the massacres committed by ISIL fighters, who seized large parts of northern Iraq in 2014 and held it for three violent years, are taking precedence.

The highest rate of identification for victims was achieved for an incident known as the Massacre at Camp Speicher by ISIL, a mass shooting of army recruits. “Most of the families have declared their missing and most of the bodies have been recovered,” Siddiq said.

The Martyrs Foundation said the killings resulted in around 2,000 “martyrs”, including 1,200 dead and 757 who remain missing.

In Sinjar, where ISIL committed what United Nations investigators described as genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, about 600 victims were reburied, with 150 identified.

Other losses remain unexplored. In Saqlawiya, a rural area near the Sunni town of Fallujah, families are desperate to discover the fate of more than 600 men who were captured when the area was retaken from ISIL by security forces.

Shia militiamen seeking revenge against ISIL rounded up Sunnis from the town of Saqlawiya, according to witnesses, UN workers, Iraqi officials and Human Rights Watch.

From her living room in Saqlawiya, furnished only with carpet and a thin mattress, Ikhlas Talal weeps as she scrolls through photos of her husband and 13 other male relatives who disappeared in early June 2016.

‘We are not a priority’

Talal did not want to describe the men in uniform who took them away, fearing retaliation. But she and other women from the neighborhood searched for their husbands, fathers and sons for years, traveling all over Iraq and contacting prisons and hospitals – all in vain.

“The Iraqi government must take all measures to find those who have disappeared and hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch.

The Martyrs Foundation and Iraq’s Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the Saqlawiya case.

Abdul Kareem al-Yasiri, a local commander for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) whose unit is currently based near Saqlawiya, denied that the PMF had any role in the loss of people from the area in the war with ISIL .

“These accusations are baseless and politicized to discredit our troops and we reject them,” he said, adding that he believed ISIL was behind the disappearances.

Talal is seeking to have her husband officially recognized as a martyr so she can get a monthly pension of about $850.

“We are not a priority,” he said, surrounded by half a dozen children he barely feeds with the help of local NGOs and small-scale farming.

Questions remain even in the better reported incidents.

Majid Mohammed last spoke to his son, a combat medic, in June 2014 before the Camp Speicher massacre. His name is not among the hundreds of victims identified by Siddiq’s team, and Mohammed remains in limbo. His wife Nadia Jasim said successive governments have failed to address forced disappearances.

“The hearts of all Iraqi mothers are broken because of their sons who are gone,” he said. “With all the time that has passed since 2003, we should have found a solution. Why are people still missing?”