On the Trail of the Missing

A Green Book Holds Secrets of Some of Saddam's Disappeared

 Baghdad, Iraq—The grave diggers say that the bodies in many of the graves here in a walled-off enclave of the Kirkh Islamic Cemetery, a mile down the road from the big prison, lie twisted in twos and threes. For over 20 years, they report, almost no one has been allowed to visit here, apart from a lone shovel man and the secret police who heaved the bodies from their cars toward the holes in the earth. The head grave digger, Hatem, says he watched these events from behind the wispy eucalyptus trees lining the western wall; he adds that the dead include women and children. These men say that the graves, most of them numbered but many of them unmarked, are filled with the opponents of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Three relatives of the missing are waiting this afternoon at an opening in the outer wall to demand answers from Khalid Abbas, the manager of the cemetery. They carry files, which they say they got from a man in Baghdad, a former Baath Party intelligence stooge who spied on their neighborhood. They're not sure why he gave up the files—maybe to clear his conscience, or more probably to stave off an angry mob. Whatever his reasons, the files are theirs, with their handwritten chronologies of harassment and invasive questionnaires. These three heard that political prisoners were buried at Kirkh, and came to find out for themselves. They cry when they remember their brothers and cousins, and go home empty-handed because Khalid Abbas does not show up for work today.

The families of the disappeared say that a simple inquiry into the fate of their loved ones would have meant death or prison in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Now that he's gone, they are in eager pursuit of new information. Baghdad and its outskirts buzz daily with word of a newly discovered prison, rumored to be underground, hidden beneath concealed trapdoors, and always unreachable. The prisoners need food and water, say the relatives, and so the daily stampedes in the direction of the rumors. In these ephemeral tales, there are always whispers from the jailed, thought to have been abandoned for weeks by their captors. To date, no underground jails have been located.

The Kirkh Islamic Cemetery, which contains numerous graves of prisoners of the Hussein regime
photo: Thorne Anderson
The Kirkh Islamic Cemetery, which contains numerous graves of prisoners of the Hussein regime

But the rumors still circulate, usually amid the large gatherings that comb the lists of political prisoners posted all over the city. The lists are culled from the files of the Mukhabarat, or secret police, by citizens, sometimes the men from local mosques. They post them on mosque doors, on former regime villas, and outside the abandoned Mukhabarat buildings.

The lists contain few details, just names, birth dates, and sometimes a date of imprisonment. Those lucky enough to locate a familiar name might also find a complete intelligence file in safekeeping with a local imam. The files obtained by the Voice don't reveal the fates of their disappeared subjects. But in recent days, that information too has begun to surface, in brightly colored ledgers that the Mukhabarat, in their great rush out the door, forgot to burn.

Iraq is awash in paper, scribbled notes on the crimes of the last quarter-century. And until the men who committed these crimes start to talk, paper is all many of the families of the disappeared will have.

Outside the town of Hillah, a hundred kilometers south of Baghdad, the village of Isleikh al Arab sits placidly on a tributary of the Euphrates. The entrance to the village this hot afternoon is clogged with human traffic. Millions of pilgrims are walking to the holy city of Karbala—numbers not seen since the early 1980s, before the regime started beating back the worshiper's march. There is still no electricity or running water here on account of the war. But the men of this village, which was a center of resistance to the regime, voice cautious delight that Hussein is finally gone.

In the winter of 1992, nine of the 51 men who then lived here were taken away by regime soldiers, never to be heard from again. Today, about 20 locals gather in the local diwaniya (community sitting room) to retell the story. There was, they say, an attack by some of the villagers on the local Baath Party headquarters. No one was killed, but about 15 days later, soldiers arrived, grabbing the suspects from the university where they studied, the barbershops where they cut hair, and the beds where they slept. "It was forbidden to ask about them," says one man, who lost his cousin. But they did what all the families say they have done: They offered a security official money in exchange for information. The director of security in Karbala, where the men were held, took the money and promised that if the villagers didn't talk publicly about the arrests, he would see to it that at least some of the men were freed. That was 11 years ago.

There has been no word from the men since except for rumored sightings by some former prisoners now released. There were never any trials, and no information has surfaced from the local Mukhabarat files. Khodair Fleih was 15 when his cousin Khitab, a computer science student, was taken from his classroom at Babylon University. Khitab was an avid reader and played volleyball, which is big in Isleikh al Arab. Khodair has been to the mosques and other sites in Baghdad where the lists are posted. So far there are no leads. "We're finished with the Baath," says Khodair, whose middle name is Soughayar, which means "small."

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