On the Trail of the Missing


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.

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.”

“We have freedom to walk to Karbala, as you see. But we are worried he [Saddam Hussein] will come back. The fear won’t go.”

They are happy here that the Shia mosques have taken control of the Mukhabarat files, and seem confident that the religious establishment is well suited to the task of finding the missing. “I think the mosque is better than any government,” says Fadil Eissa, another man just back from Baghdad, searching for a lost cousin.

On a given day, hundreds of people line up outside the riverfront villa of Maher Mustafa Ali Abu Sufian, a former bodyguard of Saddam Hussein. Abu Sufian is no longer here, and the villa has been annexed by an ad hoc group of concerned citizens organized under the name Committee of Free Prisoners. On Wednesday, one of the volunteers had sketched a logo of sorts, two hands breaking a pair of shackles, with doves fluttering above; by Thursday, the logo had been painted on a brown wooden plank, with the committee name around it, in English and Arabic. The artist looks pleased with the results.

Ibrahim Raouf, one of the four committee leaders, runs around the villa frantically, leafing through files, answering shouted questions, and giving interviews. The centerpiece of this effort is a large, red bound ledger which Raouf claims contains the names of 20,000 imprisoned dissidents. He says the ledger was lifted from the intelligence building in the neighborhood of Qadimiyah. They have also obtained a whole slew of personal files, which they hide behind a piece of wood in a low living room nook. A man sits on a stool with the ledger, looking through the alphabetized names; when a match is found, which is almost never, another man scurries back to the nook for the files. Twenty people crowd around the counter with the ledger, but dozens more are lined up outside at a window where they are asked to leave their names, the names of their missing kin, and then told to come back in two days.

“This place is not about Sunni or Shia,” says Raouf, who identifies himself and his fellow volunteers as followers of Sayed Hussein Sharistani, a Shia imam who escaped from Abu Ghreib prison in 1991 and then went on to London. All the men here, along with 40 others, were arrested in 1986 for their membership in Sharistani’s group. Raouf was released in 1989. “This committee is not organized by anyone,” he says. “It’s just about human rights.” He says the group aims, primarily, to help families locate the prisoners; then they want to find the men who jailed them “and try them in an international court.”

On the villa’s front lawn, several old men are taking a break from the heat. Saeed Hamed Moussa, 65, came to look for his brother, who was taken from his high school in Baghdad’s Thowra neighborhood in 1980. Moussa says the boy had been attending the mosque in the primarily Shiite area, and thinks that was why he was arrested. In 1986, after bribing a security official, Moussa was told his brother was still alive. There has been no news since. So far, he has checked 47 lists around the city this week.

A crowd has moved in around the old man, and they discuss the idea of justice. Would this group be willing to let the Baath Party officials go free in exchange for information about their relatives? One man says yes. The others think for a minute, and then Moussa says, “They should be punished,” which draws nods of agreement. Suddenly, the group hums with news: A prison has been found nearby, and possibly they’ve found the door. Slowly, everyone leaves, in the direction of the latest rumor.

Raouf is one of the lucky few who obtained their personal security files; he says a cousin happened on his by accident. More about this happy accident he will not reveal. The file begins with the details of his first arrest, at the age of 13. There are the records of his various interrogations, and the requests by the Mukhabarat that he spy on his friends, requests he says he refused. “Can we work with him?” asks one report. “No.” There is a signed promissory note from him. “I promise when I know something,” he told his interrogators, “I will tell you about it.” There is a page describing another arrest, but no mention of what happened in prison. “They broke my nose and my thumb,” he says, showing the scars. Following his release in 1989, he was told to stay at home, an order he promptly ignored. He says neighbors stopped talking to him and local shops stopped selling to him and his family.

“Many times, they told me, ‘We will steal your son if you don’t help us,’ ” Raouf says. He picks up the file and shows off another note requesting cooperation. “I’m very sick right now, and I’m unable to help you,” he apparently told his interviewers. “Please come back tomorrow.”

“I hate the [Baath] Socialist Party for destroying the country,” he says. “I hate them.”

Raouf doesn’t know it yet, but in a few days, his committee will receive a very important list. It contains the names of 1,500 people killed by Hussein for their political views, and the location of their bodies. The names have been copied from a tattered green book, which Abbas, the cemetery manager, keeps on the dashboard of his car.

All of the dissidents buried at the Kirkh Islamic Cemetery were once held at Abu Ghreib prison, the country’s largest and most notorious jail, from which Hussein released nearly 10,000 inmates last October. When word of their release came, the prisoners—from petty thieves to political dissidents, and all kept in horrendous conditions—overran the guards and stampeded the iron gates. Abu Ghreib is also the name given to Iraqi fathers who no longer have children.

Khalid Abbas stands near the cemetery’s mosque, surrounded by the grave diggers. A light rain falls, and gunfire can be heard nearby, as the gun market down the road winds down for the evening. Abbas has soft white hair and wears matching brown herringbone pants and a shirt. He holds his awful green book close to his chest, and explains how members of Iraq’s General Security Office started disposing the regime’s political enemies here in 1985, after another cemetery used for that purpose became too full.

According to Abbas, all the prisoners who came here had identification tags on their wrists, and he kept their records in his book. At first he says there is nothing of interest in the graves that are unmarked, and perhaps the numbers just fell off. Later, after some parents arrive, he changes his mind, saying some of the prisoners had been tortured, and were not identifiable—hence the unmarked graves. According to Abbas, the security office did not start providing him the reasons for execution until three years ago. And if someone came to ask about a loved one, he would refer them to the Mukhabarat to obtain official permission to know. Abbas says this permission was granted maybe 30 times.

“Of course I was sad about what went on here,” he says. “But what could I do? It was my job.”

Jabaar Mohammed and his wife, Umm Sitar, have arrived to inquire about their missing sons and nephews. Abbas asks them to wait, but they insist he help. Abbas pulls out his green book and asks for the names and the dates of imprisonment. He drags his finger across a few pages and then calls out the names. “Ali Jabar Adwan. Sitar Jabar Adwan.” Umm Sitar starts beating her chest, and then she breaks down. “Leith Adel Luawayli. Saad Abdul Rudda.” This is the first news the couple have had of the boys since 1991, the year they were arrested.

The walk to the cemetery is a long one, and Umm Sitar screams, appealing to God to kill Saddam Hussein and his sons, so that they might trade places with her boys. They stop at a hole in the fence, and look across the football-size burial ground, and the graves and numbers that sprout like tin flowers from the ground, in a faded yellow bloom, on stems of sawed-off metal. They look for numbers 854 to 857, the four boys resting in a row under a tree.

It is not clear why the four were arrested, but there is some suggestion they helped hatch a plan to kill a government minister. None of them, swears their father, pulled the trigger. The man who did escaped to Iran. Mohammed says he spoke with the family of the minister, and they told him they knew his boys weren’t guilty. There was never a trial, and never a visit. The boys have been dead for two years now. Mohammed says he will move them south to Najaf, and bury them there.

Abbas says he kept the secret of the cemetery from everyone, even his family. He insists that each grave holds only one body, and that he has supervised the whole operation since 1985. And he mentions that 15 other families found names from his list at the committee offices in Baghdad, and that he expects them soon. Mohammed interrupts to ask about arrangements to move the bodies, and he inquires about other missing relatives, who do not appear in Abbas’s book.