In October 2014 fighters from the extremist group known as the Islamic State arrived in the Al Alam district near the central-southern city of Tikrit. They controlled the area, about 20 kilometres east of the city of Tikrit, which they also ran, and they had come to root out traitors to their rule and find out who had erected an Iraqi flag instead of theirs in the centre of the district. They arrested more than a hundred men and took them all away.
And to this day, many of the men are still missing.
“They took him from the family home on charges of cooperating with the Iraqi security forces,” says a 34-year-old local who wished to be known only as Um Mutah. “But we live in the hope that we will see him again,” she says, adding that her six-year-old son asks her when his father is coming home almost every day. “God willing, he will return to us when Mosul is liberated.”
Like many in this area missing their menfolk, Um Mutah loses hope a little more every time a new neighbourhood in Mosul is freed of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, and the extremists’ prisons there are emptied yet her husband, a university professor, is not found.
Over 500 local men were arrested by extremists in Salahaddin - nobody knows where they are now.
Maytham al-Abad, 46, lost track of his brother in the same incident. “When you lose your brother you lose a part of your memories, the beautiful old days, and you see your mother yearning for home, her ears listening out for any whispers talking about the possible return of her loved one,” he told NIQASH.
Al-Abad says the last time they had any news of the detainees was from a contact in Mosul who said there were 84 prisoners held in a neighbourhood near Mosul’s outlying forests.
“Whenever we hear anything we use all of our contacts, on social media and in real life, to get information,” al-Abad explains. “Now that the armed forces are fighting the IS group in Mosul, their last stronghold, everyone here hopes for joyful news.”
The same kind of drama is being played out elsewhere in Salahaddin province. Hundreds of members of the provincial police forces and the local military were detained by the IS group, which said it was interrogating the men but which never released them.
“We don’t have any accurate numbers on the missing due to the chaos in administration of the province after the IS group were pushed out,” says Nadum Ali, a government official from Salahaddin. “But we do know that more than 130 people are missing in Al Alam, in Baiji there are more than 60, in Tikrit around 115, and in Al Dour, there are over 178 people missing. We know that the IS group arrested other people around the district too.”
There are a lot of problems with the ongoing uncertainty around these missing persons. Besides the human suffering, Ali says that the families of the missing are unable to move on in official terms too: They cannot claim any benefits because the Iraqi law requires a passage of four years before a missing person can be declared deceased.
The last time Tareq al-Faraji was able to call his family in February 2015 he told them he was in Tikrit and that he was in good health. But since that date his family have not heard anything from the former policeman who was detained almost two years ago.
His mother still waits for him to return to his home in Mutasim, in Samarra province. Tareq is her only son and, she says, although she knows that the IS group are brutal and do not hesitate to kill their prisoners, she still has hope that one day he might return to her.
Besides officials’ uncertainty about the situation, there is also a great deal of misinformation and mystery about the way the IS group runs their prisons and judicial systems. They were often administered by different officials in different areas, and in a decentralized way.
One Salahaddin local, Abu Farah al-Jibouri told NIQASH about the way that his imprisonment went, after he and his brothers were arrested by the IS group. Somebody had informed on them, saying that they were opposed to the IS group and that they were sending information to the Iraqi security forces.
“First, we were taken to the home of Ashwaq al-Jibouri, an MP from the province whose place had been confiscated by the IS group and which was being used as a make-shift jail,” al-Jibouri recounts. “We were there together with another 10 people, blindfolded and handcuffed. We heard them saying many times: Deportation.”
Then he and his brothers were moved to Al Dour and detained in another house that was being used as a prison, where 96 others were also being held, many of them also from al Alam. “We were beaten and abused and accused of working against the extremists. The place was very crowded and heavily guarded.”
After this the brothers were taken to Hawija on a bus and then to Shirqat and then to Qayyarah in the northern province of Ninawa. “Then we were kept in an old military barracks, that the IS group used as a base for interrogations,” al-Jibouri says. “This was by far the toughest place. It was so cold, we were hardly fed. Then the IS group became worried that the location of this prison had been compromised so we were moved again, to the basement of a house north of Mosul that had been confiscated from some local Christians,” al-Jibouri continues. “We stayed there for several months and in terms of how we were treated, this was the best place.”
It took six months for al-Jibouri and his brothers to be trialled by the IS group. He explains that, according to the IS group, if somebody from a certain province – say Salahaddin – was accused of a crime against the group then the prosecutor and the judge should be from the same place. “That’s why all the trials take such a long time,” al-Jibouri notes. “After six months we were finally trialled by a judge from Salahaddin, who released us and 45 others. We do not know what happened to the other people there though, who were taken to other destinations.”