Forlorn searches for thousands of missing Iraqis

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Karim Faraj trudges to Baghdad’s morgue, just as he has done every day for the past year, hoping to find some clue about the fate of his kidnapped brother Ali.

A man sits next to the grave of his brother, who was killed after he was kidnapped in Baghdad and the body found buried at graves for unknowns in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, January 24, 2008. Many of the missing are never found, while thousands of others end up in numbered mass graves for "unknowns", their identities reduced to a file number at the morgue and the cemetery for families hoping to track them down. REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish

So far there has been no signs and Faraj fears the worst.

“Whether he is dead or alive, it makes no difference to me. I just want to find something to lead me to him,” Faraj said.

“I swear I will not be sad if I find him dead or find a grave for him. At least this will put an end to our suffering, at least there will be a grave and a sign saying he is laying peacefully which we can visit.”

Ali Faraj is just one among tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed or gone missing in sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Many of the missing are never found, while thousands of others end up in numbered mass graves for “unknowns,” their identities reduced to a file number at the morgue and the cemetery for families hoping to track them down.

Karim Faraj’s daily trek is replicated many times across Iraq. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 10,000 unidentified bodies were taken to Baghdad’s main morgue in the year to August 2007 alone.

Few of the missing are found alive, but some families are at least able to identify their relative’s remains and put them to rest. Many more never achieve any kind of closure, despite months or even years of looking.

Shi’ite Karim Faraj has scoured police stations, jails and hospitals for any trace of Ali since his kidnapping in the Sunni Arab Ghazaliya neighborhood of west Baghdad over a year ago. He has even tried psychics, but to no avail.

He doesn’t want to tell Ali’s two young sons and handicapped daughter what he really thinks has happened.

“They are always asking me and I’m always telling them he will come back again. I can’t tell them that most likely he was killed,” Karim Faraj told Reuters.

Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf would not give any estimate for the number of people missing across Iraq, even though his office kept a count.

“All kinds of crimes were committed in Iraq, killings, kidnappings, displacements ,” Khalaf said. “No one can give a solution to all of these problems. It takes time.”

Some of the missing are kidnapped because their jobs mean they have ransom potential, others are guilty of nothing more than being the wrong sect in the wrong neighborhood. Others just get caught up in random acts of criminality.


Um Mohammed, a Sunni Arab woman in her 40s, and her family unwittingly got caught up in the assassination of Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi’s brother Amir in their west Baghdad Seligh neighborhood in 2006.

Amir al-Hashemi fled across the roofs of neighboring houses, including Um Mohammed’s, as he tried to get away from gunmen in Iraqi security forces uniforms. After killing him, they came back and took Um Mohammed’s husband and two sons.

She said the gunmen later demanded a $150,000 ransom for her husband Qasim Swidain, a former army colonel, and their two teenaged sons Qasim and Abdul Sattar.

They reached a deal for $80,000 but they never heard from the gunmen again. Um Mohammed fears her husband, who had had a stroke, is dead but can’t bear thinking the same of her sons.

She said she made “thousands” of visits to the morgue, to hospitals and the interior and defense ministries before reluctantly giving up her search. “I despaired of finding them.”

“I still have a daughter and a small son, I’m dedicating all of my time to raising them. What has happened has happened.”

Reactions among families with missing loved ones vary. While Karim Faraj doggedly refuses to stop searching and Um Mohammed despairs of seeing her husband and sons again, others simply just don’t know what to do.

Um Ali, a divorced Shi’ite woman living in Baghdad’s Sunni Arab Adhamiya district, had two sons kidnapped in July 2007.

Her eldest son, Ali Jaffar, worked on contract at Iraq’s Defence Ministry. On July 6 last year, she said masked gunmen stormed into her house and went straight upstairs to Ali’s room “as if they knew the house.”

“He was wearing only his underwear when they took him,” Um Ali said. “I shouted, grabbed him and begged them not to take him. One of them kicked me in the chest.”

Her other son, Mohammed, was kidnapped eight days later while he was looking for his brother.

She too has searched tirelessly for her sons to no avail and blames the Iraqi government for doing nothing to help her.

“No one feels how much we suffer,” Um Ali said.

“Really, I am confused. I don’t know what I have to do or where I have to go.”

Writing by Paul Tait, Editing by Matthew Jones