Thousands remain missing after Iraq’s victories against militants

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MOSUL: In 2014, Abdulrahman Saad was taken from his home in Mosul by Daesh terrorists, leaving his family in limbo.
They asked Daesh security offices and judges: Where is our husband and father? No answer. When the operation to retake Mosul began, they heard he was being held in the western part of the city, with hundreds of other prisoners. But when the area was liberated, they found no trace of Saad, the 59-year-old owner of a wholesale food store.
“Life without my father is difficult,” says his son, Rami. Without him, the Saads struggle to get by, and his wife pines for her spouse.
In their misery, they have company. Since Mosul was declared liberated in July, residents have submitted more than 3,000 missing-persons reports to Nineveh’s provincial council, according to council member Ali Khoudier. Most of them are men or teenage boys. Some were arrested by Daesh during the group’s extremist rule; others were detained by Iraqi forces on suspicion of extremist ties.
Regardless, Iraqi government bureaucracy, inefficiency and neglect have left thousands of families across Iraq hanging as the country’s leadership celebrates the defeat of Daesh.
In a small garden outside of a Mosul courthouse, dozens wait to hear if investigators have news of their missing relatives. They cling to thick files of papers: Identity documents, official forms, glossy family photos and “missing person” advertisements from a local paper. It is unlikely they will hear good news.
“It will be years before these people know what exactly happened to their relatives,” said an investigator, as anxious relatives tapped on the windows behind his desk and hovered at his office door.
The investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi government does not have enough forensic experts to exhume the dozens of mass graves discovered as territory has been retaken from Daesh. And the country’s judicial system is not equipped to efficiently process the thousands of detainees scooped up by security forces.
Some 20,000 people are being held at detention centers across Iraq on suspicion of ties to Daesh, according to a report from Human Rights Watch this month.
In Anbar province, where victory was declared in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah more than a year ago, more than 2,900 people remain missing, according to Mohammed Karbouli, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary committee on defense and security from Anbar. He said those missing from Anbar are becoming a symbol of the lack of trust between Anbar’s mostly Sunni residents and the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
When parents do not know the fate of their children, he warned, “tensions emerge.”
Just south of Mosul, an unthinkable number of Iraqis are believed to be buried in a natural sinkhole that became one of the Daesh’s most infamous mass graves. Some Iraqi officials estimate as many as 4,000 people were tossed into the cavernous, natural crevasse in the barren desert on the road linking Mosul to Baghdad— some already dead, others still living and buried alive.
Daesh fighters “would bring them and make them get out (of the car) and line up at the edge of the hole,” said Mohammed Younis, a resident of the area, recounting the weeks and months leading up to the fight for Mosul. “They would line them up and then they would execute them. And the bodies would all fall into the hole.”
An AP investigation has found at least 133 mass graves left behind by the defeated extremists, and only a handful have been exhumed. Many of the missing — especially the thousands of Yazidis unaccounted for since Daesh fighters slaughtered and enslaved the minority — may ultimately be buried there.
Estimates total between 11,000 and 13,000 bodies in the graves, according to the AP tally.
But not all of the missing were spirited away by Daesh. Some families in and around Mosul say their relatives were taken by unidentified gunmen after Daesh was defeated.
“It was the middle of the day, 3:30 in the afternoon. A silver pickup truck drove into the village and took my brother,” Elias Ahmed explained as he walked along the dusty main road leading to his home in the sprawling Bijwaniya agricultural village.
Ghazwan Ahmed was taken along with four other young men in August. They have not been seen since.
“The men who took him didn’t even identify themselves, they just said they worked in intelligence,” he explained.
Elias Ahmed spent weeks shuttling between the different headquarters buildings of Iraq’s disparate security services in and around Mosul. The federal police, Sunni tribal paramilitary fighters, local policemen and the Iraqi army all control different sections of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh countryside. Each group maintains its own records of detentions and arrests.
Ahmed went looking for answers at a court north of Mosul in the small, historically Christian town of Tel Keif, established especially to process those charged with terrorism. Each morning, family members gather outside its gates in hope of tracking down missing relatives.
Inside, judges process close to 100 cases a day. Many trials last no longer than 30 minutes.

 

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