Ahmad Al Rabihi and Hassan Al Nassiri
Ismael spent the night thinking about a way to end end life. “I didn’t dare shoot myself with my father’s “Webley” English-made pistol, so I decided to open my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and I took the pills in it”.
The speed of his family’s discovery of the matter saved his life, as his father and younger brother rushed him to Al-Shatrah hospital, which is not far from Ismael’s family house in the outskirts of the city (46 Km north of Nasiriyah).
Ismael recalls that date well, “It was dawn, on 21 December 2017… I thought I would wake up to find myself in the afterlife, but I opened my eyes to the voice of the nurse Sajjad slapping my face… I knew then that I had failed to commit suicide.”
This suicide attempt is one of the frequent stories, Dhi Qar wakes and falls asleep on, for many years. Few days later, Dhi Qar police received a report about a fifteen-year-old girl who committed suicide, one day after her wedding.
On 28 June 2017, Imam Hussein hospital received the body of the thirty-year-old young man M.KH, who was found hanged inside his home in Nasiriyah. On 1 July 2019, Dhi Qar police announced that they had found the body of another man who had committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree, in the north of the city.
South: Poverty and Unemployment
In the southern Iraqi cities, unemployment and poverty rates exceed 40%, and in light of the social customs, constraints, and early marriage; hundreds of suicide cases are recorded yearly, most of them under pressures from difficult living and psychological conditions, but some of them are murder cases with different motives, including murders of women (or what is known as honor or ‘washing shame’ killing) which are recorded as suicide, and other cases related to cyber extortion of some women, according to researchers and civil activists.
Reports and data received from official and non-official bodies in Iraq, show a marked increase in suicide cases in recent years, in light of the deteriorating social and living conditions, and in conjunction with the absence of effective rule of Law, in contrast with the rise of tribal forces after 2003.
The High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq confirmed in its statistics that more than 3,000 suicide cases were recorded between 2015 and 2017 in various parts of the country, except Kurdistan region. Dhi Qar governorate, on which this investigation focuses, recorded the highest suicide rates during the same period, and the following year 2018 recorded a rise of 60% over previous years.
Social Restrictions and Poverty
With his knotted eyebrows, and a confused look in his brown eyes, Ismael greeted us in his office in Baghdad, where he works as an editor for a news agency, to tell us about his experience with suicide, which shocked his friends and family, who were astonished by the desire of this dreamer, ambitious young man, to die.
He says, “I was fed up with the pressures my family was exerting on me, and the list of social restrictions and red lines I should not cross, under the pretext of tribal and religious customs”.
He pauses for a while then adds, “The poor living conditions of my family, made me feel hopeless … During my study at Dhi Qar University, sometimes, I could not afford a meal to have with my friends … At that time, I found that there was no way to salvation, but to commit suicide.”
According to the statistics of the Ministry of Planning, the southern governorates, with the exception of Basra, remained the highest in poverty and unemployment rates, compared to the rest of the country over the past few years. In a country that suffered political and services deterioration, and which witnessed internal fighting and then a devastating war with ISIS, which was fueled by tens of thousands of youths,all of this reflected on social stability, according to researchers and activists.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 800 thousand people, die, worldwide, due to suicide every year, and three times these numbers are recorded as suicide attempts. About 79% of suicide cases in the world are recorded in low and middle-income countries.
Few but Alarming Figures
A study by the Research Center of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, published in 2014 under the title “The Spread of Suicide Cases in Iraq- Causes and Proposals” shows that 1,532 suicide cases were recorded between the period 2003 and 2013, according to the “Supreme Judicial Council” statistics. Comparing these numbers with what was recorded by the High Commission for Human Rights for the period between 2015 and 2017, which amounted to more than 3000 cases; we clearly see that suicide cases have doubled several times.
According to Supreme Judicial Council statistics, the number of suicide cases continued to increase year after year, as 2013 recorded the highest rate of suicide cases with 439 suicides, followed by 2012 with 276 suicides, then 2011 with 253 cases, 2010 with 161 cases, 2008 with 103 cases, then 2009 with 95 cases, then in 2007 with 64 cases, 2006 with 51 cases, 2005 with 46 cases, 2004 with 31 cases, and 2003 with 13 cases.
The total number of suicides, according to the Ministry of Interior’s statistics, which was published by the House of Representatives study, reached 906 cases for the same period 2003-2013.
Even with some authorities confirming that some cases were not recorded between 2004 and 2008, due to the internal fighting and security chaos, what cannot be questioned is the rise in numbers year after year.
By comparing these figures with the statistics of suicide cases in neighboring countries such as Jordan and taking into account the population (40 million in Iraq, 10.5 million in Jordan); the numbers in Iraq remain more than twice as high.
According to the official statistics of the Criminal Information Department in Public Security, 283 suicides were recorded in Jordan for the period 2015 – 2017, with 113 cases in 2015, 40 suicides in 2016, and 130 suicides in 2017.
Dhi Qar is a “Hot Spot”
Dhi Qar governorate (375 km south of Baghdad), which has a population of 2.5 million people, is one of the governorates that is characterized by a tribal and religious character. Despite being an oil province that includes a number of large oil fields, it suffers from high unemployment rates, and the poverty rate has reached 44% before the “Coronavirus” pandemic crisis, which worsened the situation, according to figures from the Ministry of Planning.
The figures obtained by the author on the number of suicides in Dhi Qar, differed widely between the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on one hand, and Nasiriyah forensic medicine and its local government officials, on the other hand.
According to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 225 people died as a result of suicide in 2017 and 2018, throughout Dhi Qar governorate, at an average of 9.3 suicides per month, 142 of which were in 2017 and 83 in 2018.
Gender breakdown shows that 2017 witnessed the suicide of 50 males and 92 females, but in 2018 the numbers decreased to 36 males and 47 females.
The statistics of the Forensic Medicine Department of Dhi Qar Health Department and the official local government statistics obtained by the author, were lower than the Human Rights Commission figures, as Forensic Medicine Department recorded 97 suicides between 2017 and 2018, of which 43 cases in 2017 and 54 cases in 2018.
In the cities of southern Iraq, where unemployment and poverty rates exceed 40%, and in light of the social customs, restrictions, and early marriage, hundreds of suicide cases are recorded.
Former governor of Dhi Qar, Adel Al-Dakhili, who was the head of suicide cell in the governorate before his resignation following public protests, revealed that 98 suicide cases were recorded in the governorate during 2017 and 2018, 46 of them in 2017 and 52 in 2018, while the last two statistics did not contain any details of gender type, as the concerned authorities refused to provide them.
The Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 32 cases during the first half of 2019, 19 of which were males, and 14 were females.
These statistics come out despite some ambiguity and lack of transparency – especially from governmental institutions – about the true numbers of suicide cases, and the attempt of those authorities to conceal negative social aspects, with various pretexts such as suicide, incest, and high rates of drug abuse.
The Numbers are greater than the Declared
Declaring lower numbers was confirmed by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning spokesman Abdul-Zahra Al-Hindawi, who indicated that the Central Bureau of Statistics – responsible for statistical operations for all parts of the country in all fields and it is affiliated to the Ministry- “does not have any documented data or statistics on suicides in Iraq.” Hindawi also questions the presence of “accurate statistics about suicide anywhere in Iraq,” and confirms that “The published numbers and statistics are much less than what is happening on the ground.”
The “Shiite” religious authority in Najaf, and through its representative in Karbala, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, confirmed during Friday sermon on 7 June 2019, that “The prevalence of suicide phenomena in Iraq indicated a defect in society and state institutions,” calling for “The political system and the country’s rulers to show mercy towards the people,” noting that, “the phenomena of suicide is everyone’s responsibility, and society should be built and preserved from perishing.”
A Bride commits Suicide after her Wedding night
In January 2018, Nasiriyah police received a report of a bride’s suicide, just one day after her marriage, as she was found hanging by a rope suspended from the ceiling of the room.
About a year before that, 15-year-old (Naba’ Waa’d) was raped by her neighbor, who was more than 15 years older than her, after he trapped her to his house while she was on her way back home from school. Her family, upon discovering the incident, attacked the rapist’s house in what is called the “tribal revenge”, using light and medium weapons.
The girl’s family agreed that rapist’s tribe would pay 42 million Iraqi dinars (about $35,000), as a “tribal separation”, which is – ‘blood money’ paid between the tribes in exchange for reconciliation- in addition to imposing the marriage between ‘Naba’ and her rapist.
Naba’ totally refused the idea of marriage, but her family and uncles forced her to accept. Her marriage ended hours later, when she decided to end her life, instead of living with her rapist.
Our investigating team was unable to know many details about Naba’’s life after the assault on her, or the way she was treated by her family, due to the social restrictions.
Suicides are repeated with victims throwing themselves into Rivers
Suicides in Kurdistan
High suicide rates are not limited to southern Iraq cities, where there is unemployment, poverty, and social conservatism, or in the middle. In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, the picture is not much different, despite the better economic conditions and the comparatively more open society.
The general directorate for combating violence against women in Kurdistan, recorded 328 suicides among women only in 2018 in the three governorates of the region. In 73 of those cases, sharp object, hanging rope or poison were used, while 145 women set themselves on fire for unknown reasons, and 110 set themselves on fire intending to end their lives, during the same period.
In the first half of 2019, 189 cases were recorded by the directorate, including 32 cases which happened in different ways, 99 cases of fire, and 58 cases of self-burning.
Meanwhile, a survey by “the Kurdistan Men’s Union” stated that in 2018, 115 cases of suicide among men were recorded, due to social and economic crises in the region.
Apart from suicide cases, local organizations concerned with the situation of the Yazidis, reported that more than 150 Yazidi women (old and young) committed suicide as a result of confronting the horrific sexual violence at the hands of ISIS militants, after their invasion of the Yazidi areas of Sinjar (80 km west of Mosul) on 3 August 2014.
In the absence of official figures, activists who track suicide cases in the Yazidi community estimate their number to be more than 200 during the years that followed ISIS attack, “due to their difficult living and psychological conditions following the genocide and the displacement.”
Murders covered as Suicides
After more than a year and a half of pleadings, submissions, and 16 sessions, the Sulaymaniyah court issued a ruling on 11 August 2020, to execute D. M., the husband of Siwan Kader (23) who was burnt to death, along with three of her children in Chamchamal in mid-December 2018.
The case, which was initially considered as a suicide or fire incident, the people of Siwan with rare persistence, succeeded in proving that what happened was not a suicide, but a murder planned and carried out by the husband.
Hours before her death, Siwan pleaded not to close her case and turn it to suicide, and said: “My husband is the one who did it, he must be punished for this… I will never forgive him nor anyone who helped him in his crime, for God’s sake, do not close this case.”
The husband had set fire to his home and claimed that he was at work. His wife was killed, along with three of his children, whose ages ranged between one and five years .
In front of the court building, Siwan’s father called on the presidency of Kurdistan region to ratify the verdict quickly, while her mother said” “please, execute him quickly, I have been dying every day for the past two years.”
Activist Laila Hassan says: “the Siwan’s family’s constant refusal to resort to tribal reconciliation and not submitting to pressure to close the case, is what helped solving the case, which could have been documented as any other suicide case.”
She added: “many suicides in all regions of Iraq are recorded as suicides for social reasons or to avoid tribal conflicts.”
Days after Siwan’s case was closed, S.M (19 years old) committed suicide in Kirkuk, after being beaten by her husband and mother-in-law.
S.M, who has only been married for 9 months, accused her husband and mother in law of pushing her to commit suicide. Before she died, she said in a voice recording, “My husband beat me… he wants to marry another woman, and his mother encouraged him to do so.”
S.M’s mother said that her daughter was not wearing any clothes when she was burnt: “On that day, she was beaten by her husband and mother in law, and when she threatened to burn herself and poured fuel over her body, her mother-in-law gave her a lighter to set herself on fire.”
Judges and civil society activists keep warning that many suicides are in fact murder crimes that are hidden under the mask of suicide.
Judge Nazdar Mirza said, during a special seminar on the phenomenon of Suicide, that most of the suicide cases he reviewed over two decades in courts are “basically murder crimes.”
Social researcher Dr. Ali Taher Al-Hammoud doubts the existence of women suicides at such high rate, considering that “some cases may be murders of women for the sake of defending (honor), or even intentional murder that cannot be proven, in light of the lack of available techniques in the forensic evidence that can determine whether the incident was a suicide or a murder.”
Al-Hammoud says “We, as sociologists, doubt we have suicides cases of this magnitude. We believe part of them are murders of women. This is documented in a study that covered all regions of Iraqi.”
Regarding the rise in suicide rates in Dhi Qar Governorate, Al-Hammoud said “the percentage of Iraqis under poverty line is high in the center and south, up to Baghdad, and this is one of most important causes of suicide.”, indicating that “the spread of social media technology and the increase of blackmail of young women, in particular, along with the unauthorized photos or videos that may cause scandals, can lead to suicide, due to severe psychological pressure.”
Despite the increase in the suicides index in Iraq since 2003 until 2019, it remains, according to Al-Hammoud, within the normal range and rather lower compared with international suicide index, which in Europe reaches 11.4 per 100 thousand people.
Al-Hammoud linked highlighting suicides in recent years to the variety of media outlets and social media platforms, which document and publish every event.
However, civil activist Jamil Ali believes that this comparison is inaccurate. Suicide in Muslim societies is religiously and socially unacceptable, and “the motives and reasons are completely different. Here, they are related to deprivation, injustice, and despair of a better life.”
He adds that “suicides often occur as a result of certain pressure or the influence of another person or entity. They also may be a cover-up for murder crimes”
Suicide out of Fear of Scandal
After about a year of following up details of women’s suicide cases, the investigation editors concluded that a large proportion of these cases were the result of threats received by girls through social media as a result of piracy of their phones and the acquisition of their private photos and videos.
This is what happened with the victim S.B. She committed suicide after a person blackmailed her and threatened to publish her photos and her family’s photos too.
According to researcher Abdullah al-Baidani, women commit suicide after being subjected to such pressures and assaults, due to tribal restrictions and local customs that consider publishing women’s photos is a scandal punishable by death.
A Government Suicide Cell official in Dhi Qar confirms the suspicions of the social researcher Al-Hammoud, that “murders which are claimed to be committed for honor reasons, are recorded as suicides”. He attributes that to the “nature of the conservative society”.
He explained that the local government “has formed joint committees with the police leadership, civil society organizations and the Dhi Qar Health Department, with the aim of identifying the causes of the high rate of suicides cases, to reduce them as much as possible,” calling for the inclusion of those who attempted suicide for economic reasons in the social welfare program at least.
Given that the security sources in Dhi Qar deal with a conservative tribal society; many of them refused to comment on the existence of deliberate murders among the murders of women which were recorded as suicides. The sources that we have been communicating with, did not deny or confirm the point of view of Al- Hammoud. They only repeated:” No comment “.
Captain S.M, from the Department for combatting crime in Nasiriyah, states that “the security services take technical measures in the event they receive any news of a suicide case. They deal with the matter like any criminal case at first. They visit the “crime” scene, analyze the incident, take statements of those who are present, and they try to reach to any clues that may lead to the reasons behind the suicide or the murder if it was a deliberate murder crime for any reason whatsoever.”
Lawyers are continuously demanding the examination of suicide files. Bassem al-Lamy, a member of the Bar association, said, after the murder of a lawyer in Baghdad in May 2019, which sparked controversy over whether she committed suicide, as her husband says, or was killed, as her family says: “the risk of using suicide as a cover for murder has begun to escalate” calling the judicial authorities to carefully investigate any suicide incident to uncover its circumstances.
A judge of Nasiriyah’s court, Nasser Omran, says, “In cases of suicide, the law basically stresses on the person instigating or assisting the victim. In case it is proven that a person incites or pushes the victim to commit suicide, that inciter is judged according to Article 408 of the Penal code, because the legislator believes that suicide constitutes a threat to the security and safety of society.”
However, lawyer Delovan Ali, believes that proving incitement to suicide is a “very difficult” issue, because the judiciary relies on “technical and concrete evidence in the judgments”.
She left a Letter that exposed Everything …
Aliaa’ Hussein, a woman in her forties, embraced her three children for one last time, crying, before entering the bathroom of her home in Nasiriyah, in mid-March 2018, carrying a canister of “gasoline” and matchbox to end her life.
Aliaa’ did not want to leave without exposing the one who pushed her to commit suicide. She left a written letter explaining the reasons behind her suicide, asking her family to avenge her after her death.
According to the messages found on her mobile phone, Aliaa’ was subjected to electronic blackmail from a fake “Facebook” account, after someone broke into her WhatsApp, and stole her private photos and videos which were saved on her phone, asking her to either pay him 10 thousand dollars or go to Baghdad to have sex with him, in exchange for not publishing those videos.
Despite the conviction of the forensic evidence of suicide, that incident was not recorded as suicide case because of the tribal pressures that forced the police to record it as an accidental fire case, while Aliaa’s relatives, according to a source close to the family , failed to find the “blackmailer” who closed his page on Facebook,.
The head of the governmental Suicide crisis cell says that “the process of separating suicides from (honor) crimes or electronic blackmailing is difficult in the society of “Dhi Qar” because of the relationships or mediation that “Tribes” and families of the victims have with some influential political figures on one hand, and with policemen on the other hand.”, so these crimes are diluted.
Death as an Escape?
International organizations attribute the motives for suicide in the world to several psychological, social, and economic reasons, while, the Iraqi social researcher, Iman al-Rawi, attributes suicides to the “terrible economic situation”, along with “the rise in divorce rates, family breakdowns, and social restrictions imposed on males as well as females, with the spread of drugs and the increase in mental illness as a result of wars and violence.”
Faten al-Halafi, who is responsible for the Women and Criminal Justice file at the High Commission for Human Rights, confirmed the increase in suicides rates, describing the numbers as “dangerous” attributing its most important reason to social restrictions on one hand, and to unemployment and the living conditions on the other hand.”
She says that the increase is due to “domestic violence, social and psychological pressures within the family,” noting that the suicide phenomena has spread among students in recent years.
Judges and activists in civil society keep warning that many suicides are actually homicide crimes being covered under the mask of suicides.
Al-Halafi clarifies that “reducing suicides requires governmental, social, and religious participation in educating the new generation, and it requires providing psychological centers, securing job opportunities, and solving family problems.”
“Many suicides in all regions of Iraq, are recorded as suicides for social reasons, or under the pretext of avoiding tribal disputes”
There are no psychological centers to accommodate or rehabilitate those who are about to commit suicide in Iraq. Ali al-Bayati, member of the High Commission for Human Rights, says that the country “lacks psychological centers and there is a huge shortage of psychiatric treatment and health staff. The culture of psychiatry in general is almost absent.”
Zeinab Khalaf, who headed the Women and Children Committee in the dissolved Dhi Qar Governorate Council, believes that the reason for the continued rise in suicides in the governorate is “the social pressures on children, social media abuse, poor parental control, family breakdown, and the financial aspect to which about 20% of suicide reasons are attributed.”
Graduating from the Faculty of Engineering did not deter S.H from committing suicide. In October 2018, he threw himself in the Euphrates River from the top of Al-Nasr bridge in the center of Nasiriyah. Despite their investigations, the police were unable to find the reasons that led him to commit suicide. His family kept repeating that they do not understand why he did it.
Activist, Hussein Ali, attributed the reason behind many suicides to “youth’s despair” in general, in light of the bad political and economic conditions and the uncertainty of the future, indicating that with the breakout of the popular protests at the end of 2019 and their continuation in 2020 ,considering that Nasiriyah was one of the most prominent arenas for those protests; the number of suicides decreased, as a result of rising hopes for a better future.
The investigation team was not able to get figures about suicides rates during the period of the popular protests which were led by young men and women, and which succeeded in forcing the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign and form a new government. In light of the security chaos, the disruption of work of the institutions, and the organizations’ occupation with monitoring cases of killing and kidnappings of the protestors; no suicide details were possible. However, activists confirmed that the governorate witnessed a decline in suicide cases during “the peak of the uprising” before they increased again.
After nearly two years of his failed suicide attempt, ‘Ismael’ does not want to remember that “bitter experience” as he puts it. He closed his eyes and took a short breath before he said, looking at a wooden chair in one of the corners of his office: “but it was a major turning point in my life … my family pulled me out from that hole.”
The investigation was completed with the support and under supervision of NIRIJ Network for Investigative Journalism, on 10 September, on the occasion of the Suicide Prevention Day.