Mayo 14, 2007

Disappeared without a trace: more than 10,000 Iraqis

Shashank Bengali, McClatchy Newspapers

Posted on Sun, May. 13, 2007

BAGHDAD, Iraq - When her heart is heaviest, Sahira Kereem tries to think of the little things her husband did that annoyed her. She remembers times when she suggested they visit her parents, and he just rolled his eyes.

The mental trick rarely brings her comfort. The fact remains that Riyadh Juma Saleh, her husband of nearly 15 years, went missing one day nearly three years ago and Kareem has no idea what became of him.

Over the past four years, as sectarian kidnappings and killings have gripped Iraq and U.S. forces have arrested untold numbers in an effort to pacify the country, tens of thousands of Iraqis have vanished, often in circumstances as baffling as that of Kereem's husband, a Shiite Muslim father of three.

There's no accurate count of the missing since the war began. Iraqi human rights groups put the figure at 15,000 or more, while government officials say 40 to 60 people disappeared each day throughout the country for much of last year, a rate equal to at least 14,600 in one year.

What happened to them is a frustrating mystery that compounds Iraq's overwhelming sense of chaos and anarchy. Are they dead? Were they kidnapped or killed in some mass bombing? Is the Iraqi government or some militia group holding them? Were they taken prisoner by the United States, which is holding 19,000 Iraqis at its two main detention centers, at Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca?

Since her husband disappeared with his taxicab on July 30, 2004, Kereem has made countless inquiries at hospitals, police stations, morgues and missing-persons centers throughout Baghdad. No record of him has turned up.

"My husband was a very simple, straightforward fellow," said Kereem, 32, as she fought back tears during a recent interview in a Baghdad hotel. "He had no affiliations. He was an ordinary Iraqi man."

In Saddam Hussein's time, secret arrests and detentions were widespread, although families rarely dared to investigate. "If a person went missing, it was best not to draw attention to the fact, as it could affect the entire family," said Fadhil Abdul Zahra, a spokesman for the human rights committee of Iraq's parliament.

These days, U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain a prisoner database that's available to Iraqi citizens. Military officials admit that the database is incomplete, but they say that unlisted prisoners in American custody don't account for many of the missing Iraqis.

In February, nearly 3,000 families visited the National Iraqi Assistance Center, a U.S. military-run office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, to search the prison records for missing relatives. That was more than three times the number from a year earlier, the center's director said.

Few families find satisfaction there. Fewer than 3 out of 10 inquiries find a prisoner. Inquiries with Iraqi authorities are also usually fruitless. "Unfortunately, the number of the names found is much smaller than the number of those not found," Zahra said.

Kereem described Saleh, a broad-shouldered 44-year-old, as the love of her life. He'd met her right after completing military service, when she was a shy teenager with fair skin and brown hair that cascaded down her back. They were married right away and had a son and two daughters.

Shortly before he disappeared, they'd celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary with a small party at her sister's home. Baghdad was quieter then, and that night they stayed out until a quarter past 2 in the morning, drinking and dancing.

A few days later, he didn't come to pick her up after a wedding and failed to turn up at their home in the Zafaraniya section of southeastern Baghdad. She and several relatives fanned out to hospitals and police stations, and later to the missing persons office in the Green Zone, in a desperate search that grew more frantic each week.

"It became like any job," she said. "Twice a day to look in the hospitals, twice a day in the morgue."

As Baghdad became more violent, the numbers of the missing mounted, and Kereem began to think that Saleh had been carjacked and left for dead somewhere. Three times, she watched as armed men commandeered passing cars, dragged the drivers into the street, shot them dead and drove off.

Her children became inconsolable. Once, a distant relative greeted her and asked, "Is there any news about Saleh, Allah yirhama?" The phrase translates to "God have mercy on his soul," and it's usually used to refer to the deceased.

"Why did she say that?" one of Kereem's daughters screamed. "Is he dead?"

Money became tight. Saleh had a second job as a government security guard, and a co-worker brought Kereem his paychecks for a few months. But a supervisor put a stop to that eventually. Kereem was forced to move the family to her parents' cramped home, where they sleep under a makeshift shelter on the roof.

A few months ago, through a family connection, she met an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. military at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport. He offered to look secretly for Saleh's name on the roster of some 2,000 prisoners.

In dozens of visits to the Green Zone she'd never found Saleh on any list, but when this man entered her husband's name, he told Kereem, five matches appeared.

The family was skeptical, but the man wasn't asking for any money. Kereem asked him to enter Saleh's license plate number, in case he'd been arrested with his car. Several days later the word came: There was a match. There was reason to think that Saleh was at Cropper.

For now, however, there's nothing the family can do to confirm this. U.S. officials in the Green Zone continue to tell Kereem that coalition forces aren't holding Saleh.

Lt. Col. Kathy Brill, the director of the National Iraqi Assistance Center, said many families told stories of relatives who they believed were imprisoned but who weren't in the database. The military stands by the database, she said.

"If they got that information from someone inside the system, that person isn't authorized to do that, so you have to wonder about where that information came from," Brill said. "I guess it's possible, but I'm not aware of any programs that keep some people out of the database."

Every day, dozens of families line up at the center, a collection of slate-gray trailers inside a fortified blast wall. They clutch the photographs and identification papers of their loved ones. There's a quiet solidarity among these broken families.

Kereem watched once as security guards turned away a frail woman in her 60s from entering the center, apparently for not having the proper identification. The woman, who was holding a cheap homemade sack, broke down in tears as she told the guards she was looking for her son.

Kereem asked for the son's papers so that she could look for him in the system. The guards wouldn't allow it - only immediate family members can search the records, they said - and the woman was left outside in the sun, alone.

"I am consoled by this," Kereem said, "because when I go and I ask and I look, I find that so many other people's tragedies are worse than mine."

McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.

:: Article nr. 32855 sent on 14-may-2007 12:37 ECT


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Abril 20, 2007

15,000 desaparecidos en Iraq

Según la Asociación por los Derechos Humanos en Iraq habría 15,000 desaparecidos desde que comenzó la ocupación norteamericana en Iraq. Minetras tanto, el Ministerio Iraqí de Derechos Humanos pronto publicará un informe detallando sus investigaciones al respecto.

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Diciembre 8, 2006

Iraq: The Disappeared

Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006
The Disappeared
Far from the headlines, dozens of Iraqis are kidnapped every day. TIME investigates this criminal underworld--and tells the story of one man who survived it

It can happen in seconds.

Waddah al-Anbari's ordeal began on an afternoon in Baghdad early this year while he was out buying a new cell phone. The neighborhood seemed safe; Waddah didn't bother to lock his car door. He was about to cross a narrow alley when a car screeched up, blocking his way. Two men got out, thrust AK-47s into his ribs and pushed him into the floor behind the front seat. Climbing in the backseat, the men pinned him down with their feet and beat him in the torso with the butts of their guns. When he tried to speak, he got a sharp jab in the ribs. His captors emptied his pockets and took his cheap wristwatch and his belt and shoes. As the car sped away, one man put a hood over Waddah's head and, using a plastic tie, bound his wrists behind his back. All that happened in a few moments, and Waddah says he could only think, "This is a mistake--they think I'm somebody else." But it wasn't a mistake. He was being kidnapped.

As if the atrocities committed by terrorists and sectarian death squads in Iraq weren't bad enough, kidnapping has become one of the country's most common forms of crime since the fall of Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials say that up to 40 people are kidnapped every day, a phenomenon highlighted last week when a U.S. soldier in Baghdad went missing, an apparent abduction victim. 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, officials say kidnapping has become an increasingly lucrative business. It helps the kidnappers that their criminal activity is often confused with the routine hostage taking by both sides in the Shi'ite-Sunni civil war. "Kidnapping for ransom is an industry," says Dan O'Shea, former coordinator of the U.S. embassy's Hostage Working Group. "It is governed by the profit motive, not religion or race or politics."

Waddah's story provides a rare insight into the inner workings of a kidnapping ring. He spoke with TIME on the condition that his identity be concealed; we have used a pseudonym and changed other details that might give him away. He refused to be photographed for this story for fear of being recognized. One of his concerns is that being known as somebody who was ransomed once might mark him as a target for other kidnappers. O'Shea and another U.S. official who works with Iraqi authorities on kidnapping-related issues say many details of Waddah's account are consistent with what they have gleaned from their investigations.

The story Waddah tells is a window into the worst nightmare of many Iraqis, who in the absence of law and order must live with the fear that they could be taken and held captive at any time or in any place. Waddah's grin reveals two missing front teeth, the result of severe beating with the butt of an AK-47, and his face is drawn and gaunt from long captivity. If his physique--once strong and upright, now stooped and limp--recovers from the ordeal, Waddah's psyche will carry some scars forever: the terror of imprisonment, the dread of not knowing whether he would live another day, the degradation of torture and the mortification of having to grovel and plead for his life. "For five weeks, I was less than a human being," he says. "Nobody should have to go through that." The disturbing truth, however, is that many of his countrymen do.

A trained motor mechanic with calloused hands and a penchant for automotive analogies, Waddah can be forgiven for thinking that trouble has been following him around for more than three years. In the spring of 2003, when it became clear that the U.S.-led coalition would invade Iraq, he and his family--his mother Haseeba, three brothers, their wives and six children--sold his late father's house near Basra and moved to his mother's ancestral home in a quiet, dusty town west of Baghdad: Fallujah. "We were sure that there would be no fighting there. The Americans would not attack it, and the Iraqi army would not bother to defend it," he recalls, "because there's nothing important in Fallujah. It was like an old car that nobody wanted." As Sunni Muslims, the family thought they would fit right into the Sunni-majority town.

But a year later, with Fallujah turning into a stronghold of the insurgency and gun battles breaking out on their street almost every day, the family moved again--this time to Ramadi, the capital of the restive Anbar province. Ramadi soon went the way of Fallujah, its streets controlled by jihadist gangs fighting pitched battles with U.S. Marines. One day an extremist cleric visited Waddah's home and urged the four brothers to join the holy war against the Americans. When the brothers refused, the cleric threatened to let loose his fighters on the family. The only way out was to move again.

Last February the family relocated to Baghdad, moving into an unoccupied house owned by a cousin in one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods. A week after they had moved, Waddah's brothers gave him $200 to buy a cell phone and some phone cards. The family had never owned a cell phone, and he was excited about buying one. Waddah got into his cousin's brand-new midnight blue Chevrolet Lumina. It was a short drive to the neighborhood's main drag, and he parked in front of a large cell-phone store. When he couldn't find a phone to his liking, he decided to try another store just across an alley. That's when he was grabbed.

It's unclear why the kidnappers targeted Waddah. The U.S. official familiar with kidnapping gangs in Iraq speculates that the arrival of a new family in a wealthy neighborhood may have alerted local criminals. "Typically the kidnappers would do some homework, tracking the movements of the family, deciding on whom to grab and when," he says. Waddah believes it was an opportunity snatch: the kidnappers happened to be cruising the street and, when they saw him get out of a brand-new car, assumed he was rich. Later, during interrogations by his captors, the Chevrolet Lumina would come up again and again. "Whenever I said my family were too poor to pay ransom, they would hit me and say, 'Don't lie to us. We know what kind of car you drive.'"

Hooded and lying on the floor of the car, Waddah had no idea where he was being taken. He thinks his captors drove for at least an hour before stopping. He was yanked out of the car and, still hooded and bound, taken into a house and dumped on the floor. He could dimly hear a conversation in another room but could not hear what was being said. After a few minutes, he was pulled up and practically dragged outside. This time he was pushed into what he thinks was the back of a van, which smelled of engine oil and urine. The second drive was shorter than the first, no more than 30 minutes. Again he was pulled out and taken into a house. The wait was longer--perhaps two hours--before he was dumped back into the van for another half-hour drive.

Why all the stops? The U.S. official says the first switch was probably a handoff to a second group, which would hold him and claim the ransom. "It's not unusual for more than one group to be involved," says the official. "As in any organized business, there's specialization. Some gangs do the snatching and then pass on their captive, for a fee, to another gang." The money changing hands at this stage may be no more than a few hundred dollars; the muffled conversation Waddah heard at the first house may have been a quick round of bargaining.

At the third house, Waddah was taken indoors, then down a flight of stairs and through a doorway and pushed roughly to the floor. He felt several kicks to his chest and thighs, followed by rapid- fire questions: What was his name? Where did he live? Where did he work? What was his family's phone number? "They said, 'The sooner you give us a phone number to call, the sooner we contact your family, negotiate a ransom and let you go,'" Waddah says. A common persuasion technique employed by kidnappers is to call the family of the victim and let them hear him screaming during torture. That usually gets the family's attention and makes them more likely to pay a ransom quickly. It upset the captors' plans, says the U.S. official, that Waddah's family didn't own a phone. "Kidnappers tend to be simpleminded people," the official says. "They have a fixed plan, and when something unexpected happens, they don't know how to deal with it."

Waddah's interrogation lasted hours, with long breaks during which his captors would leave the room. There were at least two of them at all times, but Waddah remembers several different voices. Toward the end of the interrogation, his hood was taken off, and he was able to see his captors for the first time. They were two bearded men, one of them armed. When he saw they were not masked, Waddah's heart sank. "If they were willing to show me their faces, it meant that they weren't afraid I would identify them. In other words, they meant to kill me eventually."

The interrogators ordered him to strip to his underpants and gave him a brown dishdasha, the traditional Arabic robe, which he wore for the rest of his captivity. He was then taken down two more flights of stairs to a basement holding area that was partitioned with plywood into many small cells--at least 10, possibly more. His home for the next five weeks would be a dirty cell, 5 ft. by 4 ft., with a rough concrete floor. The plywood walls were unpainted and still bore the manufacturer's stamp in a foreign script he speculates was Korean. The walls didn't go all the way up to the ceiling, and that allowed for some air circulation. He was given a large, smelly quilt that had to serve as a mattress as well as protection from the cold. From time to time, he heard other captives being taken out of their cells and up the stairs to the interrogation room. They remained there for hours, and Waddah heard screaming and sobbing. A few times, he heard the sound of gunfire--single shots, followed by silence.

His turn in the interrogation room came every other day. The questions never varied. "They kept coming back to the phone number--why I didn't have any," he says. "They just wouldn't believe me." Every session would end with threats of more beatings and torture. He was told of other captives who had died grisly deaths and was shown stains on the floor where they had bled. The strong smell of chemicals began to make sense. They had been used to cover up the smell of vomit and dried blood. But, says the U.S. official, the threat of death was probably no more than just that. "They were already invested in this guy, having paid the people who snatched him," he says. "They would not kill him if there was even a remote chance of making some money off of him."

The captives were fed twice a day: chopped raw vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, wrapped in flat, unleavened bread. Sometimes, a spoonful of hummus was added to the vegetables. A 2-liter plastic jug was in his cell on the first day; when it ran out, Waddah would knock on his door and ask the guard for a refill. Once a day, the captives were taken to the toilet in groups of five. Their hands bound behind them, they would queue up at a tap just outside the toilet. One by one, the captives were untied, and they filled a red plastic bucket with water and went in. The others would wait, still fettered, while a guard armed with an old AK-47 watched them carefully.

One day, Waddah overheard the guards talking about the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites for Shi'ites. They also spoke of the wave of sectarian violence that followed, with Shi'ite mobs wreaking vengeance on Sunnis. "It sounded like Sunnis were being slaughtered in the streets of Baghdad," Waddah says. "I was worried about my family. They were new to the city and had no influential relatives who could protect them." While waiting to use the toilet over the next few days, the captives whispered rumors of how their Sunni kidnappers were taking revenge by killing some of the Shi'ite captives. Waddah says at least two captives he knew to be Shi'ite disappeared abruptly. At his next session in the interrogation room, Waddah's captors told him he was lucky that he was a Sunni. Any Shi'ite whose family was unable to pay ransom within a week was being killed, they said. To reassure them of his Sunni loyalties, Waddah claimed friendship with the fanatical cleric in Ramadi who had tried to force him and his brothers to become jihadist fighters. He also spoke disparagingly about Shi'ites. "I am not proud of what I said, but it saved me from more torture," he says. His captors seemed to take him for a kindred spirit, and the beating stopped.

While Waddah languished in captivity, his family embarked on an agonizing quest to try to find him. His mother Haseeba, 65, took charge of the situation, as befits a traditional Arab matriarch. Realizing that the search for Waddah would require manpower, she dispatched two of her sons to Fallujah and Ramadi to summon as many cousins and uncles as they could muster. Her oldest son Mohammed's job was to canvass the neighborhood to identify the "sheiks"--older men, heads of important families that had lived there a long time and could be tapped for local knowledge and advice. Their first piece of advice: Stay away from the local police. The police in the neighborhood were known to be members of the Mahdi Army, the Shi'ite militia often blamed for the kidnapping and murder of Sunnis in Baghdad. "One of the sheiks--and he was a Shi'ite--said the police may themselves have been involved in taking Waddah," Haseeba says. "And even if they weren't, they would not help a Sunni family. They would only harass us for the ransom money."

Instead Haseeba recruited a distant cousin in Fallujah who was reputed to have contacts with the Sunni insurgency. His job was to inquire whether Waddah was being held by one of them. She was horrified when the cousin asked for a fee for that service: $1,000. He explained that the money was not for him but for his contacts. "I think he put most of it into his own pocket," she says. "But at that time, I could not afford to refuse." The days of waiting turned into weeks, and still there was no ransom demand. Some in the family wondered whether Waddah has been murdered rather than kidnapped. As violence in and around Baghdad escalated, even Haseeba began to lose hope, convinced that her son had become another nameless victim of Iraq's sectarian war. Sunnis were being killed all over the city. Surely there was no hope for Waddah.

Many kidnapping victims are held captive in remote farmhouses in the countryside. But after a few days in the basement prison, Waddah came to believe he was in an urban environment. Although there were no windows, he could hear city traffic and, when the power went out, the sound of several generators starting up. The bread served was often warm and fresh, indicating there was a baker nearby. If his captors had neighbors, they were probably complicit in the kidnappings; they obviously didn't report the sound of gunshots within the house to the police. During one interrogation, Waddah was told not to contemplate an escape. "They said, 'Even if you manage to get out of the house, the people in the street will bring you back to us,'" he recalls.

Waddah soon found himself the longest-held captive in the basement, and the guards grew friendly. They helped him get a sense of the scale of the kidnapping operation. By his reckoning, at least 30 captives passed through the cells during his five-week stay. The guards hinted that at least two captives had been government employees. Instead of being ransomed, they were sold to a jihadist group. And the jihadis took a cut from the ransom collections in exchange for protection. The U.S. official says that is common practice among kidnappers: "We know that the kidnapping industry helps finance the terrorists."

Waddah also learned a little bit about the "emir," or leader of the criminal gang. The guards described him as a bold and brazen criminal who masterminded the kidnapping of many high-value targets: rich businessmen, government officials, even a tribal sheik. The gang leader had been a senior official in Saddam's dreaded intelligence service, the Mukhabarat. The emir was also an expert in torture, able to extract information from the most stubborn captives. But he rarely took part in the interrogations anymore; in fact, he only occasionally visited the house. While he concentrated on other, unspecified business interests, the kidnapping organization was run day to day by his trusted lieutenants, a pair of brothers from his tribe.

In Waddah's fourth week of captivity, one of the interrogators went down to his cell to inform him they had made some progress in contacting his family. Waddah had given them names of family members in Fallujah and Ramadi, along with directions to their homes. One of the addresses in Ramadi had checked out, and the person who lived there--an old friend who Waddah believed had been a fighter in an insurgent group--had agreed to find a phone number for his family. The interrogator said "our people in Baghdad" were also looking for Waddah's home. A few days later, the kidnappers said they had made contact with Waddah's family. But Haseeba and her other sons, believing him to be dead, had already held a wake for him. Now they refused to believe that he was alive, rejecting the kidnappers' ransom demand as either a terrible prank or an opportunist's attempt to capitalize on their loss. "They are not going to pay," the interrogator told Waddah. "We're not sure what to do with you." Later that day, Waddah was taken to the interrogation room--his first visit in nearly a week. He was hooded again because, the guards told him, the emir was going to be present and they didn't want Waddah to see him.

There was very little beating, and the emir barely even spoke with him, but Waddah says it was the scariest episode of his captivity. As he sat on the floor, the emir and two assistants had a discussion about how to convince his family that he was still alive. One of them suggested that, as proof of life, they cut off a body part and send it to the family. There was a long debate about which part to cut: a finger, an ear, his nose or his penis. Finally, during a lull in the discussion, Waddah pointed out that his family members were unlikely to recognize any of his body parts. "They will just think you're sending them some dead guy's finger to scare them," he said. To his relief, the kidnappers saw the sense in this. The emir decided to wait until the man in Fallujah came up with the phone number.

A week later he was taken up to the interrogation room for what would be his last visit. There was still no phone number, so the interrogators said they would videotape Waddah and send the tape to his family. His hood was removed, and he was ordered to sit still and say nothing--to simply look at the camera. Expecting to be beaten, he was surprised that the filming ended in a few minutes and that nobody laid a hand on him. "They said, 'This is your last hope. If this doesn't convince your family, there is nothing else we can do,'" he says.

Within days, a package was tossed into the front yard of his family's home in Baghdad. It was the videotape: grainy images of a silent Waddah, staring at the camera, followed by a short speech by a masked man asking for $100,000. Haseeba was overjoyed. The ransom demand was obviously far beyond the family's means. But while they waited for the kidnappers to make contact to negotiate the sum, Haseeba began to collect the money. Once again, the family went to the cousins and uncles in Fallujah and Ramadi, this time to ask for money. Again they dug into their savings, collectively raising $25,000. Haseeba and her daughters-in-law sold all their jewelry, and Mohammed flogged a pair of old British-made hunting rifles he had inherited from his father. With the permission of the cousin who owned it, they even sold the midnight blue Chevrolet Lumina for a knocked-down price. Even so, they were able to get the collection up to only $40,000.

The next time they heard from the kidnappers, it was on Mohammed's cell phone--the contact in Fallujah had finally delivered the number. Haseeba took the call, beseeching the kidnappers to lower their price. "I said, 'I am like your mother. Have pity on me,'" she says. The caller asked to speak with Mohammed and told him, "We don't like to negotiate with old women. Don't let your mother answer the phone again." But Haseeba's pleas had worked. The next morning the kidnappers called again to say the family should have the $40,000 ready for collection. That evening a white Toyota Camry stopped at the family's front gate, and an old man entered, introducing himself as a tribal sheik from Anbar province. He said he had been asked to collect some money, adding, "I don't know what it is for, and I don't want you to tell me."

Waddah was still weak from a fever and barely able to stand when a guard relayed the good news: he was going home. He was hooded, bundled into the trunk of a car and driven around for an hour. This time there were no stops and no changing of vehicles. The hood was removed, the plastic bounds cut. "This is it," said one of the men, thrusting something into the breast pocket of his dishdasha and pulling him out of the trunk. "Thank God for your freedom." The car sped away before Waddah could get to his feet. He found himself just outside a well-known mosque, with 5,000 Iraqi dinars ($3.30) in his pocket. He was able to get a lift home from a passing commuter. The long ordeal was over. He was free.

With liberation come new uncertainties. In recent months Waddah and his brothers have struggled to find work in Baghdad and have returned to jihadi-infested Ramadi. But Waddah says his kidnapping has made him stronger and less fearful. Like so many other Iraqis, the family members cope with the violence surrounding them by clinging to one another. When Haseeba heard the car stop at the gate on the fateful day, she says her instinct told her it had to be Waddah. "A mother knows," she says. "So I told Mohammed: Go to the door--your brother has come home." Then Waddah walked in, and mother and son grabbed each other in a tight embrace that neither wanted to end. After several minutes, Haseeba's other sons asked her to let Waddah go so that they too could embrace him. "Never," she said. "I will never let him go."

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