Recently, Mosul local Khader Hussein received a phone call that gave him hope that his son might still be alive. The 69-year-old’s son, Tariq, was arrested by the extremist group known as the Islamic State around 18 months ago and as yet Hussein doesn’t know whether Tariq is alive or dead.
The phone call was from a friend who told him that he had heard, through government contacts, that Tariq was still alive and in a Baghdad prison. The news quickly spread through the neighbourhood. Some neighbours were concerned, saying that they had already passed by to give their condolences and they worried whether they should now go and give congratulations. Others were filled with hope that if Tariq could be found, then maybe their missing friends and relatives might be too.
The Islamic State group never used to return the bodies of those they had taken prisoner and executed.
“When my son was arrested by the extremists in the middle of 2016, on charges of communicating with the Iraqi military, we were told he was executed ten days later,” Hussein told NIQASH. “But we never received his body, so we believe he is still alive.”
Thousands of locals who had lived under the rule of the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group for the past three years, are in a similar position, unsure as to what has happened to missing loved ones.
Senior Sunni Muslim politician Salim al-Jibouri, who is also the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, has been trying to assist.
“The Speaker has received many messages regarding the detainees arrested by the IS group,” al-Jibouri’s spokesperson, Abdel-Malek al-Husseini, told NIQASH. “That is why he visited Mosul in early January and met with hundreds of people who have missing relatives.”
Al-Husseini says the speaker’s office then wrote to any government agencies that have detention centres or prisons, including the Ministries of the Interior, Defence, and Justice. “We asked them to give us news about the fate of more than 700 missing people, whose names were given to us by their relatives,” al-Husseini said.
At the moment, al-Husseini says, they cannot give out any more information than this as they are waiting for replies from the various departments.
The IS group never used to return the bodies of those they had taken prisoner and executed. It only ever recorded the names of their victims in the local hospital. In some cases, it would send a letter to the grieving family.
Locals also know that the extremists used to dump bodies into mass graves. One of the most famous was Al Khafsa, a large sinkhole outside of the city. It was rumoured to be the last resting place of around 200 prisoners the extremist group had held and then killed. The organisation continued to throw corpses into the hole until mid-2015 when it shut the burial ground down. Other mass graves have also been discovered.
“The families of those arrested by the IS group continue to suffer because they do not know the fate of their loved ones,” Iraqi MP Abdul Rahman al-Luwaizi said in a recent press conference. “Now they are becoming victims of blackmail and other exploitation, as well as prone to believing rumours, that say their children are still alive and detained at Muthanna airport or in secret prisons.” Previously a secret prison had been discovered at the airport the politician is talking about.
The IS group’s victims come from all walks of life: They were politicians, military, police, council members, and civil society activists, among other things. But nobody knows what happened to them.
Neither does anybody know the real number of the missing, adds Saad al-Khazraji, an activist who is following the case. It was only after al-Jibouri’s visit to Mosul, that a first list of the missing, with 722 names on it, was released. Most of the names on the list are there because their relatives believe the person is still alive somewhere.
As for Khader Hussein, he too continues to wait. Several months have passed since he got that phone call from his friend. Since then he has not been able to find out anything more. The friend who called him has said he cannot give any further information for security reasons.
“I sent Tariq’s name to the authorities too, but it has not appeared on the lists of the dead,” Hussein says. “I will keep waiting. We can only hope this is not just election campaigning.”