Hundreds of Kurds went missing during a bloody, internal war that raged in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan between 1994 and 1998. And many of the missing, who disappeared in the conflict between the two major Kurdish political parties, remain unaccounted for. Most people – including families of the missing – think they must be dead by now.
Which was why the reappearance of Amid Rasul in October 2008 made such a big impact. Rasul was arrested in 2000 because he was a member of the armed forces for one of the political parties in the conflict; the current government of Iraqi Kurdistan is dominated by two major parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During the 1990s, they fought one another for control of the region.
Rasul spent eight and a half years in solitary confinement in a small prison in the city of Erbil. He was not allowed to see anyone and by the time he was released, he was in terrible psychological and physical health.
"I lived for eight years without seeing sunlight,” Rasul said. “They pulled my teeth out, gave me electrical shocks and abused me sexually.”
By the time he was released his family, who live in the Sulaymaniyah area, had already commemorated his death twice. And Rasul said he didn’t even recognise members of his family anymore.
As ill as he was, Rasul’s return revived hope among many Kurdish families whose loved ones are among the missing, that their relatives might still be alive and being kept in suspected secret prisons in the region.
Today, the files on these missing people remain open. In 1998, the two political parties – the KDP and PUK - signed a US-negotiated ceasefire known as the “Washington Agreement”. According to human rights organisation, Kurdocide, though, the two sides continued arresting people up until the turn of the century.
The missing people were never given a fair trial nor were their whereabouts documented. Bodies were never delivered to families and graves, if they exist, are unmarked and unknown. Fourteen years after the ceasefire, their families and friends still have no idea what happened to them.
Nobody knows exactly how many Kurdish “disappeared” there are. Statistics are either anecdotal or collected from unofficial sources. The Commission on Human Rights from the Kurdistan Parliament estimates there are around 120 open files whereas Kurdocide says the number is more likely to be around 200. Further unofficial sources claim as many 850 files on missing people could still be open.
"The number isn’t actually important,” stresses Farman Taha, an activist working on behalf of the relatives of the missing, who lost an uncle during the unrest himself. “There are fathers who died before they ever found out what happened to their missing sons, there are children who have grown up without fathers. People have been suffering for years, not knowing, and that is the most important issue.”
One of those people is 15-year-old Faridoun. His father, Hatem, was arrested by the KDP in 1996 because he was a member of the PUK. Faridoun was four months old at the time and all he has left of his father today is an old photo of a handsome young man in a black suit. Faridoun carries the photo with him.
Another of those people is Kawlala Ismail. "We were told to go to the KDP,” Ismail, who has been wearing black for 17 years, ever since her brother was arrested by the PUK, told NIQASH. “And they told us to go to the PUK. Nobody told us anything. So where should we go now? We have no idea. The only thing we know is that we will not give up until we find out what has happened to him,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Similarly determined Kurds have been holding demonstrations in front of the parliament buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan – their third demonstration took place in July 2010.
It wasn’t actually until Kurdish politicians formed an opposition to the established parties, who had ruled the northern state in a power sharing agreement since the late 1990s, that the issue of the missing people was discussed in parliament. Political power in Iraqi Kurdistan is shared between the KDP and the PUK and in practice, the region is split into two separate zones of influence, with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.
Obviously these two parties, as the main antagonists during the civil war, had vested interests in keeping the issue of the disappeared Kurds quiet. But when opposition parties appeared, demanding more transparency and democracy and less corruption, the issue finally arose officially.
A draft law was even initiated that was supposed to hold those responsible for misdeeds during the civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan accountable – part of the law was to do with the missing persons. But it is clear that any such law will hardly be passed in a parliament controlled by the two parties who started the conflict.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, an authority founded to look into, among other things, ongoing issues of the genocidal Anfal campaign conducted by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, doesn’t give out any clear information out on this subject – and that is even though it would be the body ostensibly responsible for such matters.
Apparently one of the problems is that the families of the missing don’t have any documents proving their relatives were killed (or martyred) during the conflict – and the Ministry needs these documents.
Still, as a source at the Ministry, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NIQASH, the two political parties are still paying the families of the missing financial compensation. “That is despite the fact that they do not acknowledge that the missing people were killed during the civil war," the sources said.
NIQASH tried to contact a number of officials in order to get information about the missing people or the compensation. But none of them wanted to comment on this issue, with some even asking not to have their names mentioned in the story. Off the record though, they said most of the missing were dead.
Then again some international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, have suggested that secret prisons, such as the one where Rasul was imprisoned, still exist in Iraqi Kurdistan. The local authorities deny this.
None of this speculation is enough for the families of the missing. Simply classifying them as martyrs won’t be enough either. They want to know what really happened to their missing relatives.
"If my brother is a martyr, I want to know how and where he was killed,” Ismail protests. “I want to know if he had a trail and I want to know what happened to his body: does he have a grave, for example? Above all, I want to know when my brother will be officially declared deceased, and who will declare him so.”
What is important to Warda Umar, who lost her brother 16 years ago, is to know his fate. "If he is alive, return him to us,” she says. “If he is dead respect, our feelings and let us have a grave for him. A place where I can visit him every year, on the day of his arrest."