Across the province families are scouring burial sites and official buildings seeking out any evidence that might reveal what happened to the thousands of people who disappeared during the recent years of violence.
Umm Fadel has not seen her husband, Haj Abbas, since he disappeared during an overland trip to Syria in 2006. She says she has no idea about his whereabouts but suspects that he was killed by terrorist groups because he was a Shia.
Having only arrived in Anbar from Baghdad a few days ago Umm Fadel is now staying in Ramadi with the family of Sheikh Sabah al-Duleimi, a local tribal leader, who has offered to help her conduct her search for her missing husband.
That Umm Fadel, a Shia women, can today venture into the Sunni heartlands of Anbar province, receiving assistance from local leaders, points to the transformed landscape that has swept across the province.
In the wake of the collapse of Saddam's regime in 2003, up until mid-2007, Iraq's western region faced a spate of killings at the hands of Sunni militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Thousands of Shia Iraqis were brutally killed because of their religion, while Sunnis were murdered because they were accused of collaborating with the government or multinational forces.
Major General Tarek al-Asal, Chief of Police in Anbar, described some of the crimes perpetrated by Al-Qaeda militants to Niqash. “They carried weapons and robbed women's money and gold ornaments," he said. “They drove the men to desert areas, where they or their families were killed and dumped into the desert. Their cars would be stolen, and no one would be tracked down and punished.”
Many disappeared without a trace, leaving their families with no idea of their tragic fate.
Umm Fadel says she has been looking for her missing husband for three years now. “I have looked for him at Interior Ministry prisons, U.S army camps, forensic medical centers and police stations. I even traveled to Damascus. But all my efforts have been in vain. I have not ruled out the possibility that he died on the Baghdad-Amman-Damascus highway," she told Niqash.
Haj al-Duleimi, who is accommodating Umm Fadel and her two children at his residence while she searches the province for her husband, says that he and other tribal chiefs have given hospitality to scores of families looking for lost loved ones. “The inhabitants of our province are famous for their generosity and dignified behavior,” he explained.
Al-Duleimi and his aides say they themselves have spent days joining the search for Haj Abbas, checking with local police stations and at unidentified burial sites where details about unclaimed bodies can sometimes be retrieved.
Abdullah Abdul Karim, a member of the Sunni Endowment Office and head of the many burial sites dotted across the province today, says that “number of unidentified bodies has increased tremendously over the past few years. Hardly six or seven months passes after a cemetery is set up before it is full of murdered bodies.”
“Before the fall of the regime the number of graveyards across the province was eleven, but at present there are more than seventy cemeteries and most of the new ones contain unidentified bodies," he said.
Accompanying Haj al-Duleimi and Umm Fadel to al-Bukharbeet cemetery, one of the biggest burial sites on the outskirts of Ramadi city, Niqash saw printed banners placed over many graves, providing details about the buried victims, including their gender, as well as the date and place of death if known. Additionally, documents and any other distinguishing marks or materials, like clothes or shoes, are placed next to the graves.
According to one cemetery attendant, “many families have identified their dead ones through the details attached to the gravestone." He added that "just a few days ago, a family identified a missing victim through his torn shirt placed near his grave.”
But despite the efforts by local authorities and tribal inhabitants the provincial council faces formidable problems identifying dead bodies and informing grieving families.
“We face significant difficulties identifying the families [of victims] considering the large number of murdered people and the fact that many of them came from other provinces,” said Saad Abdullah, a member of Anbar’s provincial council and chairman of ‘Victims of Terrorism’ organization.
Col. Farouk Mohammad Abed, the governor's security advisor, says that “the provincial offices are fully prepared to help victims' families despite the search difficulties caused by the large number of cemeteries and the fact that many victims are headless or have been exposed to appalling mutilations.”
According to Abed the province provides “accommodation for families and helps them travel to different parts of the province in search of bodies.”
For people like Umm Fadel the assistance of local tribal figures and government officials is a huge help, offering some hope that their search might eventually end with success, permitting them to say a final goodbye to their loved ones.