On April 9 this year, armed men wearing uniforms drove up to Sudanese man on the street in the crowded Karadah area of Baghdad. They bundled the man into an SUV and drove away. And to this day the people in this neighbourhood, who witnessed the abduction, have been unable to find out what happened to the man. But they also say that they’re hardly surprised by this. This sort of thing has happened here, and particularly to outsiders, before.
Kidnappings and random abductions were more commonplace in Baghdad between 2006 and 2007 at the height of sectarian tensions in the Iraqi capital. Every day, locals were kidnapped simply because they were of another ethnicity or religious sect. If they were lucky, they might be ransomed or they could be held in an official prison for some time. If not, they turned up dead or, often worse for the relatives, were simply never seen again.
Ali's mother considers herself lucky, her son returned. But she won't let him leave the house alone any more.
Dozens went missing every night and when corpses turned up, Baghdad’s doctors would take pictures, then note down any identifying characteristics on the bodies. They would then send the bodies for burial and the religious authorities would pay for the funeral. To this day, there are hundreds of unidentified corpses buried in Iraq and the families who lost members may never know what really happened.
Those families continue to grieve. For example, Sahira Ibrahem is still looking for her son. While mother and son were out together in July 2006, a military vehicle pulled up and two men in uniform took her son away.
She never heard from him again.
Ibrahim has continued to search for him since then, checking lists of names in detention centres and enquiring with officials regularly. The closest she believes she has come is a news report broadcast by a local television channel that showed a group of prisoners. Ibrahim believes she spotted her son among them but she can’t confirm this because the video is such bad quality. So all she can do is continue to hope.
Although there are not as many of these incidents these days in Baghdad, this kind of abduction still happens.
For example, local woman, Iktimal Taha, tells how her son, Walid, went missing in 2014. Walid was a taxi driver and he would leave his house in Athamiyah, a suburb of Baghdad, early each morning, returning back in the evening. However one day, he did not return.
“Everyone tells me to think that he is already dead,” Taha told NIQASH with tears in her eyes. “But I don’t think he is because I still feel his presence.”
Walid’s father, Ahmad Abdel Wahab, believes this too and he thinks that his son is actually being held, incognito somehow, in a Baghdad police prison.
“Up until today, nobody ever called to ask for a ransom,” Wahab says – and he also knows that at the time his son disappeared, there were a lot of random security checks on ordinary people being done in Baghdad. It was just after the security crisis, sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, had started in June 2014.
There are a number of potential culprits when it comes to kidnappings in Iraq today.
Some young men are abducted because of personal conflicts between themselves and other young men, members of the volunteer militias. The volunteer Shiite Muslim militias have a lot of power in Baghdad now and the immoral members act as though they’re in a criminal gang. If there are grudges or arguments to be settled, the militia members may use their influence and see that their foe is kidnapped.
Baghdad locals also believe that certain security details, possibly working for political parties, are behind some of the kidnappings. They also know that sometimes security forces don’t reveal the names of those they have arrested or taken away for investigation into, suspected terrorism, until the investigation has finished.
The Ministry of Interior and other security forces say that when they detain somebody they register the name. However representatives of the Ministry of Justice indicate that when locals are arrested under anti-terrorism laws, they may not be registered. Their names are kept secret.
“Some authorities may not share the names of those they hold in custody,” says Haider al-Saadi, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice. “They may not declare the names – especially if the person is suspected of terrorist acts – until investigations are finished or a verdict was reached. It could take several months for those names to be added to the lists of detainees on central computers.”
Al-Saadi says the only thing he can recommend that families do, is to check on the Ministry of Justice registries every few months, in the hopes that the name of the missing person eventually shows up.
A Baghdad woman who wished to be known only as Um Ali considers herself one of the lucky ones. In mid-2007, her son went to shop at a nearby market. While he was there, there was an explosion and the responding police arrested many young men who were nearby, in an attempt to find the perpetrators.
After two years of searching for her son, she and her husband, a cleric, discovered that Ali was being held in a prison run by Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior on suspicion of having had something to do with the market bombing. Thankfully after two more years, Ali was cleared of the charges and released back to his family in 2011.
“My son returned,” Um Ali told NIQASH. “But many other mothers are still grieving.”
And now, she explains, she won’t allow her son to leave the family home without an escort of some sort.