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Search for the disappeared - old and new - begins

[Iraq] Searching for the missing.
Baghdad residents consult lists of missing people (Mike White)

Auras Bahjat pulls a scrap of paper from his pocket and reads out the names. Four brothers, all in their 20s, all Kurds, all disappeared in 1992. Their parents gave him the piece of paper in the hope Auras may be able to trace what happened to them.

In a once luxurious building in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris river, Auras and dozens of other volunteers from the newly formed NGO Iraqi Committee To Free Prisoners, sift through mounds of files, looking for evidence of what happened to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who disappeared during the regime of Saddam Husayn.

The files were found in government buildings and prisons, and tell terrible tales of the fates of many of the missing. Auras picks one at random and reads a document telling how a 17-year-old student was hanged for being a member of the Communist Party. Earlier, he had found a file recording how a young woman had been jailed for three years for telling jokes about the regime.

Auras said the task was huge and made harder by many official buildings having been bombed in the war, and with files, CDs, microfilm and floppy discs containing vital information having been destroyed by members of the old regime before they fled or looted in their wake. "But you must do it, someone must do this job."

If information from the files did reveal the fate of a prisoner, his or her name was entered on a list that was then taped to the walls of the committee's makeshift headquarters.

Ahmad Abid Ali traces down a list with his finger, and stops near the bottom of one page. The name he points to is that of his uncle, who was taken away by police in 1981 because of his political views. Another uncle was taken three years later and has never been heard of since.

Finding one uncle’s name evoked mixed emotions in Ahmad. The list was one recording the names of prisoners who had been killed while in prison. But at least he now had some certainty, he said. At least the family now knew where his body had been buried and could go and retrieve it. "Before, we couldn’t go and search for him, because we were too afraid. We always hoped he was alive, but now we have found the answer."

In 1982, Bashir Aydan was arrested for his political opinions and subjected to nearly a decade of inhuman treatment in prison. But, in his words, "God saved me", and he had been released in 1991.

His two brothers were executed while in prison. Until now Bashir had been unable to do anything except keep silent and out of sight of Saddam’s secret police. But with the collapse of the regime, he immediately began working with the committee to help others who are searching for family members.

One of the searchers is Mithaq Ali Hasan. Her brother, Abd al-Rasul Ali Hasan was a 26-year-old soldier when he was taken from the family home in Najaf in 1991, she said at a Baghdad hospital. It had been 03:00 when 20 police stormed into the house, and that was the last they ever saw of him.

But despite the odds, Mithaq still believes her brother is alive, somehow, somewhere. She has searched prisons, dug through files on missing people, and been to the Red Cross and other international agencies without finding any trace. Abd al-Rasul had two sons, one only a month old when he disappeared, and Mithaq is determined to find him for their sakes - and for the sake of the rest of the family.

She said their father, who was also arrested but later released, was now paralysed, and their mother was suffering from many chronic medical complaints due to stress. The whole family had been psychologically affected, living as they had - a life filled with fear, she said.

But the reality is that many people will never find what happened to their relatives. A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, Nada Doumani, said it would be very difficult to trace people who had been missing for 20 years or more.

The Red Cross did not have access to prisons during Saddam’s regime, and it was now concentrating on locating those who had gone missing during the recent war.

Underneath the mangled Al-Muthanna bridge in northern Baghdad, Salih Mahdi stands beside a patch of freshly turned earth that is covered in flies. Beneath the surface lie the bodies of four young men who were said to crossing the bridge when it was destroyed.

With other nearby residents, Salih used his hands to bury seven bodies, three of which were subsequently retrieved by their families. But the remaining four seem destined to be added to the tally of those missing in Iraq, with families never knowing what happened to them.

Salih has written their names on a metal transformer box nearby, hoping someone will notify their loved ones. And every day he stands in the hot sun near the fetid grave, waiting for someone to come for the four he buried.

"I didn’t know them, but they were my brothers. They were Muslims, so they were like my brothers." It is the least he can do for the dead, he said. He has 12 children of his own and, thanks to God, all survived the war, he said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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