The Missing in Iraq: a harsh reality, an unsolved tragedy

Not knowing the fate of family members missing as a result of armed conflict or violence is a harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, including Iraqis. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons and their extended families are desperate to know the whereabouts or fate of their loved ones.

Missing persons might have been captured, abducted, some perhaps killed and buried in unmarked graves, or they may lay in a hospital in critical conditions or linger in a hidden place of detention. In the midst of conflicts, family members might be separated as they flee the combat zones looking for a safe haven. Sometimes they are never reunited.

An unsolved tragedy

Over the last three decades, since the Iraq - Iran war (1980-88), Iraq has witnessed this phenomenon. Today, tens of thousands of families continue to look for their loved ones who are unaccounted for as result of the conflict.

According to Iraqi public sources, the number of persons missing since the Iraq-Iran war ranges from 375,000 to 1,000,000. This reflects two main facts:

- The number of persons unaccounted for remains too difficult to estimate with any accuracy ;

- Even if the minimum of 375,000 missing persons is correct, it reflects the scope of this unsolved tragedy faced by both families and missing persons. For each missing person there is not only one person suffering but there are whole families who wait for information or the return of their loved ones.

With the daily violence currently inflicted on the lives of Iraqis, tens of bodies are found every day, while countless persons go missing. While some of the bodies found can be identified, others cannot. According to official sources in Iraq, from 2006 until June 2007 some 20,000 bodies were brought to the Medical-Legal Institute in Baghdad (MLI). Almost 50 per cent of these bodies were unidentified and brought to morgues throughout the country. When unclaimed, they were buried in cemeteries. Since 2003, according to some sources, 4,000 unidentified bodies have been buried in special cemeteries in Najaf and Kerbala.

A perilous process

For an Iraqi family, the process of looking for a missing person may prove to be extremely complicated or even very dangerous, and sometimes impossible. One of the main factors is the current security situation. Today, it is well known that moving in certain areas in Iraq can be life-threatening. Therefore, families cannot move freely asking for the whereabouts of their missing relatives. They try to go through private channels such as individuals or charity organizations. The second step would be looking in hospitals, before inquiring at the MLI, knowing that Baghdad suffers today from the worst security conditions.

If the body is located, families have two possibilities:

- Make a trip to recover the body, knowing that this might involve a high security risk. Some families make this choice, with sometimes terrible consequences: "After a three month search, my husband and I were told that our son's body is in Baghdad", said Iman. "We decided to go there and on the way we were stopped by armed men who kidnapped my husband. I wish they had taken me along because now I am alone".

- The second possibility for families would be not to take the risk of recovering the body, even if they have some information regarding the possible whereabouts of the human remains. This means however continuing to live with doubts and a terrible anguish.

"Each family is important"

Another factor that complicates the search is the fact that families do not know where to ask. Today, there is no centralized source of information on missing persons. Families mostly work by speculation. This becomes even more complicated when families are contacted by anonymous individuals claiming to know the whereabouts of their missing relatives and asking for money in return for the information. Moreover, even if the family pays, the information might not be true.

"Recovering a body today has become a business", says Ala'a. "I was contacted six times by different anonymous individuals claiming to know the whereabouts of my brother. I paid each of them between US $ 300 and 500. I was finally able to locate the body but till now I could not recover it due to the security situation."

Solving the problem of missing persons is a great challenge for the Iraqi authorities. They have already taken some important steps:

- Development of plans for the establishment of a centre to tackle the issue of the missing, within the Ministry of Human Rights, which is an indicator of a political will to solve the issue. This would centralize information from all governorates in Iraq on persons sought and on human remains found. This would make it easier for families to acquire information.

- Promulgation of a law to protect graves sites (in February 2005)

Despite these efforts, thousands of families are still waiting for news., Persons tracing missing relatives contact the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a daily basis.

"Each family is important. Each family is waiting for news of their loved ones," says Karl Mattli, head of ICRC's delegation for Iraq. "Some have been waiting for years and refuse to let go of their hope that the person they are looking for is still alive. The pain of the families is not just emotional. In addition to the problems experienced by all other victims of armed conflict or internal violence, the families suffer from the socioeconomic and legal consequences, notably when the breadwinner of the family goes missing."

Taking into consideration the critical security situation, the ICRC has set up five telephone lines ("hotlines") in Iraq to assist families looking for news of missing persons or persons detained/interned in Iraq.

Forensic obstacles

One of the means to identify dead bodies brought to the MLI is DNA testing. However, there are certain obstacles that make this unavailable in Iraq. Currently, there is a dearth of forensic medical practitioners working at the MLI in Baghdad. The ICRC has since 2004 organized training for the doctors from the MLI and other relevant structures in governorates to meet current forensic demands in Iraq and ito provide scientific skills necessary for the proper management of human remains and human identification.

Even though DNA testing is currently not possible in Iraq, the MLI has started to collect DNA samples. Samples are kept in conducive conditions, so that it will be possible to process them even after a considerable period of time. However, this is not as easy as it may seem. "DNA testing is a complicated process," says Dr. Maximo Duque Piedrahita, regional forensic advisor to the ICRC. "It would probably take one full year to do DNA testing and matching for about 20,000 unidentified bodies, even if there are ten specialists working seven days a week, 24 hours a day and with the best equipments available today."

This said, DNA sampling remains crucial, but should not mask the necessity to collect directly from the families of the missing person the relevant personal information on the missing person (such as the type of clothes worn on the day of disappearance, possible x-rays of the teeth or bone fractures). The match of this information (ante mortem data provided by the family) with the post mortem data (data found on the dead body), will allow for identification in the future.

A collective challenge

The ICRC's main concern today is to ease the anguish of families waiting for news of missing relatives. The lack of clarity on the fate of persons unaccounted for and the absence of any support to their families leaves lasting wounds and deep resentments.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure clarification of the fate of missing persons and support to their relatives, the ICRC seeks to support their current efforts in these two respects. As a neutral and impartial organization, the ICRC role is exclusively humanitarian and the institution remains committed to facilitate the process undertaken by the responsible authorities in Iraq.

Given the complexity of the task and despite the many useful initiatives and projects carried out to date, clarifying the fate of the all the missing past and present and responding to the needs of their families will require time. The ICRC advocates on behalf of the families and their right to know that a centralized source of information is identified, promoted and supported by the central authorities in Iraq. To achieve this, it is crucial that all actors involved, whether governmental bodies or local organizations, coordinate their efforts, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the endeavor.