Copyright © 2008 All Rights Reserved. Al-Hakim Foundation.
Families of the Missing: Coping with Ailing Family Members
Jane Durgom-Powers IFFAMPAC
Dr. Bayan Alaraji ..…Al Hakim Foundation
Ms. Layla Alkhafaji....Al Hakim Foundation
Ms. Amy E. Rashkin …..IFFAMPAC
The Missing in Iraq
Cruel Reality and unsolved Tragedy
By: Layla Alkhafaji
Not knowing the fate of family members missing as a result of dictatorship policies, 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
An unsolved tragedy
“During Saddam’s time, people were being arrested and sometimes families couldn't’t get any information about
their loved ones.
The first discovered mass grave in Iraq after the fall of Saddam regime was in Mahawil district of Babel
province on May 9, 2003; it contained 14,000 corpses, mostly women and children. The last discovered grave
was in Al-Haidaria in Najaf; it contained 150 victims, mostly Kurds.
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 that
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:
b- The number of persons unaccounted for remains too difficult to estimate with any accuracy;
c- 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.
Add to that tens of thousands of Iraqis missing with the daily violence happened after the fall of the
Dictatorship Regime inflicted on the lives of Iraqis, tens of bodies were 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). 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 was the security situation at that time
between 2006-2007. In the last 5 years, It were 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 at that time suffers from the worst
security conditions. It has been improved very much now a day.
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 one lady telling her story. "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 then 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. 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 a year ago before the improvement in security situation became a business. Family of
missing person might be contacted six times by different anonymous individuals claiming to know the
whereabouts of their missing member. They paid each of them between US $ 300 and 500.
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 National Centre for Missing and Disappeared Persons to
tackle the issue of the missing, which is an indicator of a political will to solve the issue. This would centralize
information from all govern orates 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.
"Each family is important. Each family is waiting for news of their loved ones "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."
One of the means to identify dead bodies brought to the 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. There has been governmental effort since 2004 organized training for the doctors from the
MLI and other relevant structures in govern orates to meet current forensic demands in Iraq and to provide
scientific skills necessary for the proper management of human remains and human identification, Iraq lacked
the technical capacities to undertake the arduous task on its own.
After the fall of the dictatorship regime the whole world witnessed ten of Thousands of Iraqi families searching
for the truth, for the bones and skeletons of their loved ones so they can bury them with dignity and mourn
them in a marked and final resting place,” Most of them still waiting.
“However, this is going to be a complex task since we have a severe shortage of forensic pathologists and not a
single DNA laboratory to help identify bodies discovered in mass graves”
The 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.
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
It is important and crucial for 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 endeavour. That is why Al-Hakim Foundation feel the responsibility and on behalf of the
families of Missing took the initiative and sponsored the 2nd international conference of mass graves in Najaf .
The purpose of the conference is to scientifically talk about this tragedy and big crimes and every aspect of it
through research presented by those from Iraq, Europe, and other parts of the world.
The conference raised recommendation that seek for working on the practical steps so that we can reach the
required goals embodied in drafting compensation law for victims of mass graves and the genocides, Participants
in the conference were different delegations consisting of government officials, Parliament members,
representatives of NGOs, and relatives of the victims.
What is Needed?
As part of its needs, Iraq has looked at the experiences of Kuwait, Kosovo and Bosnia where the civil war left
more than hundreds of mass graves in its wake.
Bosnia's access to DNA testing helped speed up the task of identifying thousands of people buried in graves.
“Bosnians were only able to identify 20-48 people each year between 1996-2000. This figure increased to over
9,000 per year once DNA testing was introduced,”
Countries such as Italy, Germany and France have already pledged their support to help equip Iraq with the
needed forensic expertise. The United States and Canada agreed to assist with DNA testing. These steps
reflected the dedication and commitment of the international community in helping Iraq towards returning to a
life of normalcy.”
As for the families of missing Iraqis who have been identified, expressed hope that the interim government
would approve a plan to allocate compensation for their loss.
For the purpose of rebuilding the country with the participation of all Iraqi components and not repeating such
crimes in Iraq and as part of the reconciliation process it is very important to forming a committee of all
components to search for mass graves and return corpses to their origins, establishing a center for archiving and
documenting criminal evidence, establishing monuments where the crimes have occurred, encouraging media and
the Ministry of Culture to produce films and documentaries about the crimes, demanding that the ministries of
Education and Higher Education insert the crimes in study curriculum for future generations, requesting that the
Iraqi Parliament accelerate its issuance of a law to compensate relatives of the victims, and attempting to
introduce these crimes as internal genocide to the world.
"The mass graves are a stamp of shame on the former system. The mass graves that host nearly half a million
people are very clear evidence of genocide committed by the former system of Sadisms.
Most mass-grave victims in Iraq are from the Anfal Campaign and the Al-Shabania revolution. Anfal was
carried out by the Iraqi army in 1988 and resulted in the destruction of more than 4,000 Kurdish villages; nearly
182,000 of their residents were sent to prisons in the center and south of the country. Al-Shabania revolution
occurred during the first Gulf War when the former system massacred the Shiites who rose up against the
system; tens of thousands were killed and buried in mass graves.