Former classmates separated during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 reunite decades later.
Kuwait City, Kuwait – Reams of documents sit on the shelves at the Aljazzaf’s house, a testament to decades spent in search of the family’s youngest son, Jamal, who was abducted by Iraqi forces in February 1991, just before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ended.
Sultan and Faisal Aljazzaf have worked tirelessly to find their younger brother, meeting politicians, military men and intelligence agents to try to get answers.
They even managed to meet Jordan’s former King Hussein bin Talal, asking him to intervene with Saddam Hussein – still in power in Iraq at the time – to resolve the issue of hundreds of Kuwaitis who had been missing since his country’s invasion of Kuwait.
The fall of Saddam
While some Kuwaitis were hopeful after Hussein was overthrown in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, their hopes were soon dashed. There was no real closure for the Aljazzaf family either.
“An Iraqi intelligence officer told us that military forces killed them all before the fall of the regime,” Faisal Aljazzaf told Al Jazeera, with tears running down his face.
While the Aljazzaf family refuses to give up the search, many other families have resigned themselves to the loss of their loved ones.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ended, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) set up two committees, the Tripartite Commission and its Technical Sub-Committee, to encourage information-sharing and the search for new information, and to monitor search missions conducted in Iraq.
There are a number of challenges to their work, given how much time has passed since the end of the conflict. Iraq has seen major upheavals since the 1990s, witnesses are hard to find, archive material has been lost, and the landscape itself has changed, making recovering the remains of missing individuals even more difficult.
Many of the families of Kuwait’s disappeared believe former officials in Saddam’s regime are denying the crimes committed by their secret services out of fear of being held accountable.
However, according to Dorothea Krimitsas of ICRC Kuwait, Iraq is “fully cooperating with the mechanism”, and meetings are held several times a year.
‘This page of our history’
Younger Kuwaitis are not taught about the hundreds who went missing during the Iraqi invasion, it is not part of their history lessons. And, for some, it is better that it stays that way.
“We should forget and delete this page of our history. If we keep thinking about it, future generations may fight again,” said Bader Muhareb al-Deeri, whose brother Nawaf disappeared during the war.
Al-Deeri still cries when he talks about his brother, almost three decades after he was taken. “He was gentle, caring, honest and respected by our neighbours. Why did they kill him?”
Unlike the Aljazzafs, who still refuse to accept the idea that their brother could be dead, al-Deeri has moved on and allowed a Kuwaiti court to issue Nawaf’s death certificate.
Ameena and Mohammed al-Drees are still hopeful that their father, Khaled, is alive somewhere in Iraq, even though he has not been seen since January 2, 1991, when he was arrested by Iraqi forces who accused him of rebelling against the Iraqi invasion.
His children refuse to believe the Iraqi army killed him. “Where is the evidence? Why don’t they find my father’s bones?” Ameena asked Al Jazeera.
“One of the amnesiac men in the street of Baghdad could be my father,” Mohammed said.
“What if he comes down the street? I don’t know if I would even recognise him. We want to tell him that he has grandsons.”
The Martyrs Office
The families that have resigned themselves to the death of their loved ones have the support of Kuwait’s Martyrs Office, a public institution that supports the families of the 946 people killed during the invasion.
The office provides the families with social, educational, health, and housing support, giving them the help they need to move on without their loved ones who were often the primary providers.
Badria al-Motyry retired from the prison administration and has been a volunteer for the Martyrs Office for 13 years.
She tells the story of a mother so distraught by the disappearance of her son she would sit and speak to his photo every night.
“I had to work with her for about three years, telling that she should never forget her son, but [she should] also allow herself to live a life,” al-Motyry told Al Jazeera.
Thirteen years ago, al-Motyry was supporting about 50 families at the Martyrs Office. Today, the number has gone down to about 20. “The wounds are partially healing,” she said.
The matter of seeking closure for the families of the disappeared is not entirely closed, with the UN Security Council asking Iraq in February to do more to find the remains of those missing.
But the Aljazzaf family and others like them are not putting much stock in what the UN is doing, saying these recent developments “do not mean anything”.
How and when these families will find the closure that allows them to reconcile with the disappearance of their loved ones remains to be seen, nearly three decades after the end of the war.