Seeking answers, closure for Iraq's missing

A Virginia man leads an effort to document thousands who vanished

Postwar Iraq

April 25, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The photographs haunt him and there are thousands - grainy snapshots of Iraqi men, women and children. Their eyes stare back at him, begging the questions: Where did they go? Why did they vanish? Will they return?

Zuhair Humadi has no answers. Instead, he has a mission: to document the disappeared.

An Iraqi exile living in Falls Church, Va., Humadi has spent the past decade collecting information about Iraqis who disappeared during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Last fall, with the help of Fareed Yasseen, a technology consultant in Boston, and a grant from the State Department, Humadi created an online database, (mafqud means missing in Arabic).

Since the Web site's launch, the names, biographical facts and photographs of more than missing 9,000 Iraqis have been posted.

That number is only a fraction of the estimated total of those missing in Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 290,000 Iraqis have disappeared since the late 1970s. Although the Iraqi government is thought to have kept meticulous records, the fate of these victims was often known only to a small circle of officials, many of whom are apparently in hiding.

Humadi does not expect to find answers to every case.

"All we want to do is make closure for some of these families," he said in a phone interview.

Born and raised in Baghdad, Humadi - a scholarly looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and graying hair - left Iraq in the 1960s to earn his doctoral degree in political science at the University of Southern Illinois. He returned to Iraq in 1968 but left shortly after for the United Arab Emirates.

In 1987, he and his wife settled in Washington, where he works as an educational consultant and is an active member of the Iraqi National Group, an exile organization. He explained his commitment to the cause at a recent meeting of the group in Georgetown.

"It is much worse for a family to have someone missing than to know that they are dead," he said. "The missing person just hangs in the air, and it is psychologically devastating. We just want to see some of the documents and get some information."

With the fall of the regime, information - shreds of evidence that hold clues to the fate of the disappeared - is everywhere.

"Iraq right now is just one huge crime scene," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "We have to protect all this evidence and assure the people that there will be some kind of judicial process. If not, then people will begin to take matters into their own hands."

In some cases, they already have.

Last week, Iraqis in Baghdad were seen carting off boxes of documents from government buildings. Desperate to find relatives and friends that vanished sometime in the past three decades, crowds combed through prisons.

In most cases the likelihood of finding the disappeared alive is slim, but the hope that there are still victims to be rescued is not unfounded.

"Sometimes people do turn up, even after they've been missing for decades," said Beth Ann Toupin, Iraq Country Specialist for Amnesty International, who noted the release of thousands of prisoners by opposition forces in Iraqi towns during the 1991 uprising.

"That's why at this point, the best thing for us to do is to make sure that there are not people who are buried in the webs of secret prisons that could be saved," she said. "Then, we've got to start piecing together all the information we can get."

Some of the information gathered since the fall of the Hussein government has been grim. Early this month, British forces in southern Iraq found hundreds of boxes of human remains in a warehouse near Zubayr. The bones are believed to contain remains of casualties of the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war.

"It's like long-shot detective work," Toupin said. "With the numbers of those missing in the hundreds of thousands, it really is guesswork. You don't know who to look for - Kurds, Shiite or miscellaneous others. You don't know who was fighting, who ran off, who was forced away or who was killed."

The "disappeared" include a large range of victims.

In September 1980 after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of families were forcibly sent to Iran, most of them Arab Shiites who the authorities said were of Iranian descent. Thousands of men in these families were arrested and later transferred to unknown places, never to be heard from again.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf war and uprisings by Shiite Muslims and Kurds, thousands are thought to have vanished, many of them victims of extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, as the Iraqi forces pulled out of Kuwait, more than 600 Kuwaiti and other nationals were arrested and taken to Iraq. Their whereabouts remain unknown, despite international pressure.

In Operation Anfal, in 1998, the Iraqi government razed 4,000 villages in Kurdish areas, and more than 100,000 Kurds disappeared.

Victims also include suspected political opponents, journalists, artists, businessmen, students and army officers.

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