When he first heard that American troops had toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi engineer Hazem Mohammed thought he would finally be able to find his brother, who had been shot and buried in a mass grave after a failed uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991. was thrown in.
Mohammed’s hopes did not soar after the United States-led invasion in March 2003. Relatives of thousands of people killed or disappeared under the dictator believed they would soon find out the fate of lost loved ones.
Twenty years later, Mohammed, who was killed by two bullets but survived the mass murder in which his brother was killed, and countless other Iraqis are still waiting for answers.
Dozens of mass graves were found, testimony to the atrocities committed under Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. But the work of identifying the victims of the historic killings has been slow and partial in the partisan chaos and conflict Iraq in the last two decades.
Mohammed said, “When I saw how graves were being opened on a large scale, I decided to keep the location of the graves a secret until a strong state was established.”
As excavations continued, more atrocities were committed amid sectarian conflict and the rise and fall of armed groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS)As well as Shia Muslim militias.
Today, Iraq is home to one of the highest number of missing persons in the world, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which estimates the total extent to hundreds of thousands of people.
At the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam’s troops had moved Mohammed to the site where he, his brother and others had been killed 10 years earlier to lead a team of experts to crush a mainly Shiite insurgency. was surrounded.
At that point, he was forced to kneel and shot next to trenches summarily dug on the outskirts of the southern city of Najaf. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were executed by Saddam’s forces during his rule.
The remains of 46 people were exhumed from the site, which is now surrounded by fields, but Mohammed’s brother was never found. They believe more bodies are still out there, unaccounted for.
“A country that does not deal with its past will not be able to deal with its present or future,” he said. “At the same time, I sometimes forgive the government. They have a lot of… victims to deal with.
According to the Martyrs’ Foundation – a government body involved in identifying the victims and compensating their relatives – more than 260 mass graves have been unearthed so far, with dozens still closed.
But resources are limited for such a big task. In a section of the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, a team of about 100 people processes mass graves, one site at a time.
Department chief Yasmeen Siddiq said they have identified and matched DNA samples of nearly 2,000 individuals from around 4,500 bodies.
On the shelves of her storage room were the remains of victims of the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–88—skulls, cutlery, a watch, and other items that might help identify the victims.
Forensic efforts are complemented by archivists studying piles of documents from Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, which was disbanded after his coup, to identify the names of those missing.
Mehdi Ibrahim, an official with the Martyrs Foundation, said that every week his team identifies about 200 new victims. The name has been published on social media.
So far the Foundation has processed about half of the one million documents it holds, a fraction of Iraq’s scattered collection. Most of the Ba’ath Party-era documents are held by the government, while others were destroyed after the invasion.
Some atrocities are investigated more quickly than others.
According to Siddiq, the priority has been the massacres carried out by ISIL fighters, who captured most of northern Iraq in 2014 and held it for three violent years.
The highest detection rate for victims was achieved for an event known as Camp Speicher Massacre Mass shootings of army recruits, by ISIL. “Most of the families have declared their missing and most of the bodies have been recovered,” Siddiq said.
The Martyrs’ Foundation states that the killings resulted in approximately 2,000 “martyrs”, including 1,200 killed and 757 missing.
In Sinjar, where ISIL carried out what UN investigators described as genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, about 600 victims have been re-buried, of whom about 150 have been identified.
The other missing have not been traced. In Saklawiya, a rural area near the Sunni city of Fallujah, hope is being lost for discovering the fate of more than 600 men captured when security forces retook the area from ISIL.
According to witnesses, UN workers, Iraqi officials, and Human Rights Watch, Shia militias seeking retribution against ISIL surrounded the Sunni town of Saqlawiya.
From her living room in Saklawiya, furnished only with a carpet and a thin mattress, Ikhlas Talal wept as she scrolled through photographs of her husband and 13 other male relatives who had gone missing in early June 2016.
‘We are not a priority’
Talal did not want to describe the men in uniform who took him away for fear of retribution. But she and other women in the neighborhood searched for their husbands, fathers and sons for years, traveling across Iraq and contacting prisons and hospitals — all in vain.
“The Iraqi government must take all steps to locate the missing 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 Saklawiya case.
Abdul Karim al-Yasiri, a local commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), whose unit is currently based near Saklawiya, denied that the PMF had any role in the disappearance of people from the area in the war with ISIL.
“These allegations are baseless and political to discredit our soldiers and we reject them,” he said, adding that he believed ISIL was behind the disappearances.
Talal is demanding that her husband be officially recognized as a martyr so that she can claim a monthly pension of about $850.
“We are not a priority,” she said, surrounded by half a dozen children, whom she barely feeds with the help of local NGOs and small-scale farming.
Questions remain over even the better-reported incidents.
Majid Mohammed last spoke to his son, who was a war medic, in June 2014 before the Camp Speicher massacre. His name was not among the hundreds of victims identified by Siddiq’s team, and Mohammed hangs in the balance. His wife Nadia Jasim said that successive governments had failed to address the problem of enforced disappearances.
“All Iraqi mothers are heartbroken by the disappearance of their sons,” he said. “With all the time since 2003, we should have found a solution. Why are people still disappearing?”