Iraqi families seek answers about missing loved ones

International agency says number of missing people in Iraq could range from 250,000 to one million people.

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    Iraq has been ravaged by decades of near-ongoing conflict and reports of missing persons are numerous [File: Brennan Linsley/AP Photo]
    Iraq has been ravaged by decades of near-ongoing conflict and reports of missing persons are numerous [File: Brennan Linsley/AP Photo]

    Um Rami says her family was left "penniless" when her husband disappeared in 2007 during the United States occupation of Iraq.

    "When he disappeared, we went through torture, all kinds of torture," the Baghdad resident told the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in a video marking the International Day of the Disappeared, commemorated globally on Friday.

    "All the responsibilities fell on my shoulders. I take care of the family, their lives, and their education."

    Iraq has been ravaged by decades of near-ongoing conflict and reports of missing persons are numerous. The ICMP has estimated that the number of missing people in the country could range from 250,000 to one million.

    On Thursday, the prime minister's office and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) held a joint event in Baghdad to mark the international day of those missing.

    "Iraqis have suffered for too long from the successive armed conflicts, the oppressive practices of the former regime, from years of violence after 2003 and from the terrorist crimes committed by Daesh," the office of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL, an armed group that at its peak in January 2015 held an area across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of the UK.

    "Too many lives have been lost, and countless families remain without news about their missing relatives", it added.

    The head of the ICRC delegation in Iraq, Katharina Ritz, told Al Jazeera on Friday that the event in the capital was held to "show the importance of the missing person issue and political commitment" in resolving it.

    Ritz said the ICRC was working closely with government ministries, the judiciary and specialised forensic institutions to address the issue of the fate of the missing persons.

    "We recommend to reinforce the effort with a purely humanitarian mechanism, such as a national commission, that brings together the existing expertise and can lead the search for the missing, support to families and prevent future disappearances," she added.

    Alice Walpole, the United Nations deputy special representative for Iraq, also addressed the event.

    "For many families whose loved ones are missing, presumed killed, the truth is the only recompense we can offer them," she said.

    Walpole praised a draft bill currently being debated in the Iraqi parliament addressing enforced disappearences and urged the government to improve its efforts to investigate cases of disappeared persons and prosecute those responsible.

    "It is, at the very least, what the families and communities of the disappeared deserve," she said.

    ISIL's mass graves

    From the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in 2014 to its territorial defeat in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria this March, hundreds of civilians were kidnapped by the group and held in its notorious jails. Many of the missing are presumed dead. 


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    The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in 2018 that documented more than 200 mass graves in territories previously controlled by ISIL - sites where many Iraqis continue to search for the whereabouts of missing family members, hoping to get some level of closure.

    "It is important to protect mass graves properly so that evidence is not lost until a process of identification is put in place," Ritz told Al Jazeera.

    However, she said it could possibly take years before the bodies are recovered and identified.

    Rights groups have also accused Iraqi security forces of carrying out abductions and enforced disappearances.

    In 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Iraqi military and security forces have "disappeared dozens of mostly Sunni Arab males since 2014, including children as young as nine, often in the context of counterterrorism operations".

    It said it had documented dozens of cases which involved groups within the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella of militias.

    Iraq is a signatory to The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states that under "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever", whether the country is in the midst of a war or undergoing political instability, "may the state invoke as justification for enforced disappearances".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News