Dressed in black robes and unified by sadness, several elderly women and men gathered in the backyard of Baghdad’s Medical City. As the women started slapping their faces in hysteria, one of them, tightly holding a photo of her son to her chest, shouted: “He is still young! Not even 18. I searched all the hospitals and did not find a trace of him.”
In an attempt to find their children who had gone missing or were forcibly disappeared during the 2019 October demonstrations, these families follow in the steps of Ali Jaseb’s father.
Ali Jaseb was a lawyer who had gone missing, and for almost two years, his father carried his photo around in public protest, demanding to know the truth. He was assassinated by armed factions before knowing his son’s fate.
These stories repeat themselves. Young Abdul Masih Romeo was also kidnapped at Al-Khilani Square in central Baghdad after joining the 2019 October protests. Riot police arrested him with a number of other demonstrators, according to several eye witness accounts. His family searched for him afterwards in every government prison to no avail.
On February 1, 2020, journalist and researcher Mazen Latif was kidnapped, followed a few days later by journalist Tawfiq Al-Tamimi. Neither has been heard from since.
Paying a Price
All the stories share a similar pain. For the family, the disappearance of a loved one seems worse than death. Its worse to not know what happened, as hope is synonymous with pain. In the case of the death of a loved one, one can at least bury him or her, and bid farewell.
Five years ago, Al-Mugheeb Amer Fadel (35) was kidnapped in the city of Saqlawiya in central Iraq. Following the liberation of areas which had been under control of ISIS, members of an armed group loyal to Iran entered the city. They wore military outfits and demanded all women and children leave the city under the pretext of purifying the region from ISIS militants. All men over the age of 16 were arrested.
Amer Fadel’s family sold their house to pay someone who claimed to know where their son was. Today, Amer’s wife Maha lives in a small room in the countryside. Someone from her city has offered for her to stay there until her husband returns. The niqab covers her face, while her children watch nervously, fearing our journalistic presence could cause the armed factions to come. They are used to regular inspections.
“Every time people came and promised to know where my husband was, we paid money,” said Maha. “But every time we went to the prison they pointed to, we didn’t find a trace. We had to sell the house to look for my husband. Maybe he is in a militia prison. That’s what someone told us last time.”
“But who can reach him? I refuse to believe he was killed. As long as we don’t see his body, he’s alive.”
In the city of Anbar in the west of Iraq, Saeed Kazem is awaiting the return of his three children, the youngest of whom is only 17. They were kidnapped four years ago by armed men belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces faction. After the PMF was ambushed, they arrested all the men in the area, including Saeed’s sons.
“They were part of the armed factions, I don’t know if they were PMF or Hezbollah,” Saeed said. “But they asked for money in exchange for liberating my children. A man told me they are in al-Hout prison, accused of belonging to ISIS. He also told me he could talk to the officer in charge to change the course of the case. But I have not been able to obtain any information since then. I don’t even know if they’re really in prison or not.”
Looking at his eldest son’s children, Saeed’s eyes welled up with tears.
“I don’t know if they’re still alive,” he said. “One of them was having difficulty breathing. I am ready to sacrifice my life in order to see them or just receive some news about what happened to them.”
One blazingly hot afternoon, a group of mothers of the disappeared gathered in front of the al-Hout prison in Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq, hoping to find their loved ones. Standing on asphalt hot enough to melt their feet, they faced the prison. Every time they saw a prison guard one of them would run to ask if her son’s name was among the prisoners.
One Million Missing Iraqis?
The Iraq High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) has documented 75 cases of missing people since the start of the demonstrations in October 2019. Some 25 have since been found, while the fate of the 50 others remains unknown.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates the number of missing persons in Iraq since the days of Saddam Hussein lies between 250,000 and one million. The ICRC is working in partnership with the Iraqi government to help uncover their fate.
According to Omar Farhan, head of the War Crime Documentation Center (WCDC), during the first days of the liberation of the Qayyarah area in Mosul a prison affiliated with the Nineveh Counter-Terrorism unit was established.
“The unit’s members stand accused of facilitating the release of ISIS members in exchange for homes, commercial buildings and sums of money with a total value of over two billion dinars, while at the same time negotiating with families to pay for the release of their innocent children,” said Farhan.
“Detainees related to families that could not pay were neglected, tortured and killed. This was done deliberately without any official papers.”
Farhan emphasized that during the period of militia control, many innocent people, who were not wanted by the Ministry of Interior or Defense, were killed. There are no official documents regarding their deaths. Such violations continue to this very day.
According to Farhan, during the military operations in the governorates of Anbar, Salah al-Din and Nineveh, more than 23,000 cases of people gone missing have been documented.
Since the start of the demonstrations in Baghdad and the southern governorates, the War Crime Documentation Center has documented over 75 cases of forced disappearances of activists and civilians during protests. Their fate, and the identity of those who kidnapped them, remains unknown, while the central government in Baghdad has proven itself incapable to work on their release.
Once again, the Iraqis are witnessing the extent of influence exercised by militia forces affiliated with Iran, and how much more powerful they are on the ground than the “state.”
The Electoral Bazaar
According to journalist Omar al-Janabi, the Sunni parties had agreed to take on the issue of the displaced and missing before the 2018 elections, but then merely used the files to establish a political settlement with the Shiite parties involved in those displacements and disappearances by force of arms. Then they would simply shelf these files and only open them again during the elections to blackmail opponents and gain popular support.
The Iraq High Commission for Human Rights between 2015 and 2020 recorded 8,615 forced disappearances and 12,000 missing, some 8,000 of whom went missing in the last three years alone.
One of them is Sajjad Al-Iraqi, who was arguably kidnapped due to his anti-militia views and activities during the October protests. He wrote several pamphlets condemning militia violence against protesters.
According to one of his friends, after being kidnapped Sajjad was kept in several secret prisons in different areas not under control of the Ministry of Justice. These prisons are located in areas controlled by armed factions, far removed from the residential areas and farms. The government still denies their existence, even though there have been many unconfirmed reports about secret prisons run by pro-Iranian militias in the region of Jurf al-Sakhar.
Cemeteries and Mass Graves
According to a source at the Forensic Medicine Department (FMD), the institute buried 491 unidentified bodies in 2020, which are believed to belong to missing persons, who died in prisons run by armed factions in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. The FMD did not verify the bodies’ identities nor their cause of death.
Recently, a mass grave was discovered in Anbar that contained the remains of a large number of people. Their clothes indicated they were civilians, and the holes in their skulls indicated they had likely been executed. A security official confirmed the site used to be a gathering place for militias affiliated with the PMF in 2014 and 2015.
While the state is supposed to financially compensate the families of the missing, Ali Al-Bayati, a member of the IHCHR, said the government lacks a proper database that enables it to check missing people’s records and hold possible perpetrators accountable.
The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances has the authority to receive complaints from families of missing persons and has asked the Iraqi Ministry of Justice for an explanation on the many outstanding issues. It is still awaiting an answer.