Witness - City of Widows
From: Witness

City of Widows

Witness follows one woman’s desperate search for her kidnapped husband.

Watch part two

Filmmaker: Rashed Radwan

Zahra, a Shia, and her husband, Ammar, a Sunni from Baghdad were at home with their two children when a group of men knocked at the door.

Ammar was forced at gunpoint into a car which disappeared down the street at high speed. Since that day he has apparently vanished from the face of the earth.

“Doing some research for a story about orphans in Iraq we came across some shocking figures: 2.5 million Iraqi women were widowed by the war. At first our idea was to do a film just about the widows, but further we looked, we found that the Iraqi widows were living a double tragedy. For many, their husbands had just vanished without a trace and now categorised as ‘death without news’.” Carmen Marques, the producer of City of Widows said.

Kidnapping is rife in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Official figures that about 40 people were kidnapped every day during 2007.

Generally it is straightforward criminal activity, though it is often confused with the routine hostage taking by both sides in the Shia-Sunni conflict.

Usually though, some hours after the kidnapping, the family will receive a phone call asking for a ransom. But if no call comes the chances are the body will soon turn up, dumped in a street or rubbish tip somewhere in the neighborhood.

Zahra never received such a phone call but, after four years, she still has no doubt that her husband is alive.

“It was very difficult to organise the filming with Zahra. Legally she is not a widow, but in the absence of her husband, her family and neighbours consider her as one.
This means she has a certain social conduct to follow. For this film we needed to follow her on her outings and in the Iraqi society this is not appropriate for a woman in her situation,” Carmen said.

“We had to negotiate long and hard with her brothers prior to the filming and the key was to make them understand that Zahra’s story could help the world understand that there are many human stories of suffering behind the daily news from Iraq. Regardless, her children had to be with us every time we went out of her house as otherwise she would have been seen as a bad woman.”

With ransoms ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than a million and with the police often unwilling or unable to even register such cases, kidnapping has become an increasingly lucrative business in Iraq. It is estimated that about 22,000 Iraqis are missing without trace since the beginning of the war in 2003.

Rashed Radwan followed Zahra on her searches across Baghdad as day after day, she travels round police stations, hospitals and morgues in a desperate search for her husband, and in the face of disapproval from a society where widows are still expected to stay, invisible, at home.

“Our main intention doing this film was to show that people and their tragedies are much more than numbers we see in the media that behind each headline about the dead and missing in Iraq there is a wife, a son or a brother suffering the consequences.

“With the war in Iraq we got used to see and hear about numbers, how many died in bombing, how many were detained and how many lost their lives in crossfire. We forgot that behind these numbers and statistics there are people, Zahra is much more than just a statistic.”