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Never-Ending Search for the Sons of Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Every few weeks, Najeeba Jaafar defies logic and braves the eight-hour round-trip bus ride to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where her youngest son was stationed when the U.S. invaded last year. She makes the trip even though villagers told her that American bombs had “minced” all the soldiers, and the remains were hastily buried.

If he had survived, her son would have called by now, but Jaafar keeps looking, even after holding his funeral. “I’ve lost hope,” she said, “but I can’t help it. I have to go, in case I find something.”

This is Jaafar’s second missing son. She is one of thousands of Iraqis tormented by the fading hopes that their vanished loved ones survived the catastrophes that have plagued this country. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were taken by Saddam Hussein’s government. Thousands more served as soldiers and disappeared during his wars.

“This is a people that has been torn apart,” said Dan Goure, a military analyst who studies Iraq at a Virginia think tank, the Lexington Institute. “They have been torn apart by the death and destruction and loss from all forms of three wars, and a decade of sanctions, and on top of that the internal repression. You’re talking a good chunk of two generations that have been destroyed, traumatized beyond what we in the West can imagine.”

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So many people have disappeared in so many different ways here that aid organizations have lost track.

“Don’t even think of counting,” said Sumaya Ali Hussein of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. Of “every four Iraqis, two know someone who has disappeared.”

When Saddam Hussein’s government fell, so did the offices that tracked missing soldiers. The International Red Cross, which was about to launch a campaign to find missing Iraqis, closed its local offices after 12 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in October.

That has left the Iraqi Red Crescent Society as the only local resource for families trying to find relatives who have disappeared. The country’s continuing agony is told by one grim Red Crescent statistic: Of the 4,600 missing Iraqis the society’s Baghdad field office has logged since April, fewer than 100 have been found.

Jaafar’s eldest son, Farouk Hameed Saleh Samaraiy, was grabbed from a Baghdad boulevard by Hussein’s secret police in 1991. Jaafar never found out what happened or why he was taken. She said she spent a couple of days poring over old intelligence files from one of the looted ministries, but the descriptions of torture and execution were so distressing she had to stop.

The most recently disappeared son, Hussein Hameed Saleh Samaraiy, suffered a leg wound in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Jaafar thought the injury would save her son from another round of service, but she said the government forced him to reenlist right before the latest war. She could not come up with a princely 500,000-dinar bribe -- about $250 -- to keep him out of the army.

‘Like a Crazy Woman’

When her son first went to his post in the north, Jaafar would bring him food and cigarettes every weekend. The day Baghdad fell, he called and said he would call back in a couple of hours to say where she could send supplies.

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Jaafar never heard from him again. Though she knows he is probably dead, she will not believe it until she sees the body.

“I’m like a crazy woman in the house,” she said through sobs, clutching the folds of her chador. “I have a portrait of him at home that I talk to.... He’s my son. I always worried about him.... It’s only natural a mother worries about her son.”

Sumaya Ali Hussein understands Jaafar’s emotional limbo all too well. “Better to be dead,” she said, “than to be disappeared.”

Hussein is the only staff member at Baghdad’s Red Crescent field office who searches for the missing. Her job has taken her to anonymous burial sites in old Iraqi bases that are now run by the U.S. military, into the homes of impoverished farmers and through dozens of neighborhoods where unexploded ordnance lies under rubble. One of her volunteer assistants has dug through so many burial sites that he has earned the nickname “Saint Corpse.”

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On a recent morning, Hussein and another volunteer, Hassam Hamza, stood over a patch of weeds at the edge of a Baghdad industrial boulevard. On a white retaining wall behind her, spray-painted in red, was the word shahid -- martyr. Arrows pointed to two patches of dirt. It was a sign that two Iraqi soldiers had been buried there months earlier, probably after the running street combat that preceded the fall of Baghdad. Such graves -- some with names, some just labeled shahid -- dot the roadways.

“Because this was an urban war, fought in the streets, this is one of the worst cases,” Hussein said.

U.S.-led coalition troops were armed with superior firepower and raced across a country the size of California in little more than two weeks. The Iraqi military’s communications infrastructure was demolished by bombing; commanders and foot soldiers alike deserted their posts. Analysts can only guess at the number of dead, which some experts put at about 10,000. Coalition troops had no time to tabulate the Iraqi losses -- they just buried them as quickly as they could and moved on.

“If you’re under fire you’re not thinking of stopping and burying, especially not enemy forces,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Williams, an Army spokesman in Baghdad. He said coalition forces tried to respect the bodies the best they could, but he understood why there are reports of missing Iraqi troops.

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Damaging as the most recent war was, Iraq has experienced worse. Last summer Iran released what it said were the last of 70,000 prisoners of war from its eight-year conflict with Iraq, which ended in 1988 with an estimated 1 million people dead. The two countries swapped POWs for years, and despite the recent release, many Iraqis insist there are more. The Red Cross says tens of thousands of others may have died in combat, but their bodies were never recovered.

Ali Ghareeb Salim only knows his older brother Thamir from the yellowing photos in the house and his mother’s nocturnal crying jags. Ali was 4 when Thamir, a foot soldier in the Iraqi army, vanished during a border battle at the opening of the Iran-Iraq war.

Whenever a new batch of prisoners returned from Iran, Ali Salim and his 64-year-old mother, Zahra Farhan Saleh, would track them down and ask if they had seen Thamir. The inevitable negative replies sent Saleh into regular fits of depression. “My heart has been broken for 22 years,” she said.

The family’s belief that Thamir is alive hangs on the slenderest of threads.

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Just after the battle, Thamir’s commander told Saleh that her son had been captured by the Iranians. Around 1990, neighbors said they heard Thamir’s voice on a prisoner-of-war radio broadcast from Iran. A couple of years later, a released POW said he had seen Thamir in a camp in northern Iran.

For the last 10 years, there has been no word. Yet the family is convinced Thamir survived. “Sometimes when they say there are no POWs in Iran, we feel like we’ve lost hope,” Ali Salim said. “But we’re sure that he’s still alive.”

‘There Are Thousands’

Dr. Anas A. Azawiee is not surprised at the family’s faith.

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“There are thousands like this,” he said in his office at the Red Crescent’s headquarters where he is in charge of the missing-persons unit. “There are so many families, especially mothers, who come to us and say, ‘I know my son is not dead.’ ”

Azawiee said many of the more recent cases have involved civilians who vanished amid the running street battles that have become a staple of the occupation. Some were detained with little explanation by American troops, who are holding an estimated 10,000 Iraqis as possible security threats. The fate of others is murkier.

Elheer Diwan Shihab, his 62-year-old father, Fadhel, and a 72-year-old relative by marriage all disappeared in April. They had driven to Baghdad to pick up supplies for the rest of their family, which had fled the capital when bombs began to fall. None of the three civilians has been heard from since.

Naseer Fadliel Diwan, the 27-year-old surviving brother, spent months digging through roadside graves before giving up. “My hands stunk from the smell of corpses,” he said.

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Then, one day in September, a stranger came to the family’s house and told them their relatives were being held by Americans at a military base at the Baghdad airport. The hint of hope made the family’s situation even worse.

Naseer Diwan and his mother could get no answers. The names of most Iraqis who have been detained are kept by occupation forces in Baghdad; the family members were not in the database. The Red Crescent could not find out what happened. Diwan pleaded with the translator for an American general for help, but said he was brushed off. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Baghdad last year, Diwan waited by the road where Rumsfeld’s convoy would travel in hopes of pleading his case. Security kept him back.

“I’ve thought about committing suicide three times in the past month because of the impotence I feel,” Diwan said. “I’m standing on the edge here.”

His mother, 58-year-old Hadiya Mhawish Mutlig, was home one day when American soldiers searched her house in one of their regular patrols through their modest Baghdad neighborhood. The troops found nothing -- the family is Shiite Muslim and has no fondness for Hussein’s departed regime or the resistance that regularly attacks and kills occupying forces.

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Teary-eyed, Mutlig approached the soldiers’ translator and told them how her illiterate husband and youngest son had vanished months before. She pleaded for the Americans’ help.

The translator conveyed Mutlig’s story to the wary soldiers. One of them began crying.

He spoke to Mutlig through the translator and said that, although he could not help, he understood.

“We also left our mothers,” the American soldier said, “to come here.”

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Said al-Rifai of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.


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