Nawzat Shamdine – translated by Walaa Rayya
Souad Ahmed (63 years old) spends hours of her day in her missing son’s (Amjad) bedroom, talking to his pictures and smelling his clothes. Then she spreads her prayer mat on the floor, and with a crying voice, she prays for him to return to her, his wife, and his only son. These rituals have been a constant part of her life for nearly nine years.
Amjad was a member of the local police before ISIS seized control of Mosul on June 10, 2014. He left with the withdrawing security forces towards Erbil, but returned to Mosul after a few weeks, driven by his longing for his infant child and family, and following calls from his colleagues who were still in Mosul and confirmed that the organization had granted amnesty to police and army personnel and that he could return and live peacefully with his family, as long as he signed a pledge known as “disavowal.”
Amjad signed the required pledge at the headquarters of the organization, committing not to rejoin the police, without knowing that he and 1599 of members in the police and army were victims of a major deception by the organization, which arrested them in late 2014 and their fate remains unknown to this day.
The mother refused to take any mourning actions, after her husband obtained in October 2021 a judicial decision that Amjad is legally declared due to his absence for more than four years, to secure a salary for his wife and son. She kept the door open for the miracle of his return, only to fall into the trap of scammers who received tens of thousands of dollars from her family in exchange for false information about Amjad’s whereabouts.
She whispers in a low voice, “At one point, a lawyer, followed by a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and then someone who claimed to be an officer, gave us hope. The last person informed us that Amjad was detained in the south, and if we paid, they would take us to him. However, each time we paid, the person disappeared, and we never saw Amjad.”
When the smoke of the liberation war of Nineveh Province from ISIS cleared in 2017, the voices of the families of thousands of “missing” persons began to rise, calling on the Iraqi authorities and the international coalition forces to disclose the fate of those who were arrested during the period of the group’s rule.
Meanwhile, other voices emerged, demanding the disclosure of the fate of hundreds of “forcibly disappeared” individuals who were arrested by army forces and militias on charges of belonging to ISIS. Because of that, their families became trapped in a vicious cycle of searching and deadly waiting loops. They also became victims of fraud networks that trade in the fate of their children and the suffering of their families.
Souad got distracted for a moment, then says, “During the presence of ISIS, I had hope that the Iraqi army would free my son. Then we heard that the army and the Popular Mobilization Forces had arrested many people, and we thought that Amjad was among them. When we checked with the army and officials, we heard that they all ended up in mass graves.”
She waves her hands and adds angrily, “Liars, all of them are liars and criminals!”
There were high hopes that the collapse of ISIS and the liberation of Nineveh province and its center, the city of Mosul (405 km north of Baghdad), would lead to the release of detainees in the organization’s secret prisons and that the issue of those kidnapped by militias, the majority of which belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces, which participated effectively in the war against ISIS, would be resolved.
However, both intertwined files remained unresolved for more than five years, as the government, led by Shiite parties, neglected to investigate their fates or establish a database that includes their names and places of disappearance. The government contented itself with announcing the discovery of 97 mass graves containing the remains of thousands of civilians, Iraqi army members, and police members, the vast majority of which have not been opened until today, leaving the families of the missing waiting.
A report by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights reveals that 11,000 Iraqi families are searching for their missing relatives since 2014. Meanwhile, parliamentary and governmental sources and organizations concerned with the issue circulate news about the existence of more than 6,000 missing persons in Nineveh alone since that date. These sources almost agree that the number is much higher, but some families of the missing do not want to report them out of fear of being accused of belonging to “ISIS”.
Waiting for these cases to be resolved comes at a high cost for many families of the missing. In addition to the significant emotional damage, they suffer from problems in transferring inheritance due to the absence of a body or witnesses confirming the death. This forces the relatives of the missing to submit a request for a death certificate after four years of reporting their disappearance, according to Iraqi law.
Missing or forcibly disappeared?
According to the United Nations definition, “enforced disappearance” is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction, or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was declared by the UN decision (61/177) on December 20th, 2006, and was later signed by over 70 countries, including Iraq in 2010.
Carmen Villar Quintana, the chair of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED), indicated on November 24th, 2022, following a visit with a delegation from the committee to Iraq, that no provision in Iraqi law specifically addresses enforced disappearance as an independent offense.
She stated that “the absence of an explicit definition of enforced disappearance as an independent offense in national legislation is extremely concerning, and working on a crime that does not exist in the national legal framework is an illusion, regardless of the methods and set goals.”
Human rights lawyer Dr. Mohammed Ahmed expressed surprise at the statement of Carmen Villa Quintana and said that Iraq has signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which includes 45 articles under Law No. 17 of 2009 and has become part of its effective laws.
And he pointed out that there is confusion between the concepts of missing and enforced disappearance, and that there are non-Iraqi legislations that may consider them as one thing, but according to Iraqi laws, they mean two different things: “Enforced disappearance, according to the United Nations definition, is an arrest, detention, or abduction carried out by state officials or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, and this has not practically happened with the missing persons as a result of ISIS control over areas in Iraq, so this description does not apply to them unless it is revealed that the state was involved in it.”
He clarifies: “The description would be accurate if the UN official meant those who were arrested by security and militia forces and whose fate is unknown, such as civilians who disappeared after leaving areas under ISIS control in 2016 and 2015, or participants in the October 2019 protests who were arrested by armed groups believed to be militias and there has been no sign of them since then.”
The most accurate description according to Dr. Mohammed is “missing”, and its definition according to Article 36/paragraph 1 of Iraqi Civil Law No. 40 of 1951 is: “whoever is absent in a way that it is not known whether he is alive or dead, is deemed missing upon the request of any concerned party.”
He points out that the term “missing” should only be applied to those who were arrested by ISIS militants between 2014-2017, because their fates are unknown, and Iraqi legislation grants the families of the missing the right, after four years of their disappearance, to submit a request to the competent judge to issue a death certificate for them.
Member of Parliament Ahmed Al-Jubouri mentioned that Iraq did not enact a specific law on enforced disappearance, “but it joined the international convention that obligates it to legislate a law specifically for that”, but he did not confirm the existence of parliamentary efforts to legislate an enforced disappearance law.
However, a source in the Iraqi parliament mentioned that a committee consisting of specialized legal academics is currently working on a new penal code, instead of Law No. 111 of 1969, which includes a clause devoted to “enforced disappearance.”
According to the source, the term should be corrected from “disappearance” to “forced disappearance.” The reason for this correction is that there is always an entity responsible for forced disappearance, whereas the term “disappearance” presents a linguistic problem because it could suggest that the person’s absence has no cause or that no one is responsible for it.
The parliamentary source highlights Iraq’s approach to dealing with missing persons. They note that on December 28, 2009, the Council of Representatives passed Law No. 20, which addresses compensation for victims of military operations, military errors, and operations. This law consists of 21 articles and was published in the Iraqi Official Gazette under issue number 4140. It set up committees to receive requests from families of missing individuals and determine the appropriate compensation they should receive.
The term missing persons was detailed in Article (2) which mentions “martyrdom and disappearance resulting from the operations mentioned in this law”. Later, the former Minister of Justice, Dr. Haider Al-Zamili, issued instructions to facilitate the implementation of the law, which were published in the Iraqi Official Gazette on 5/11/2018, issue number 4516.
According to the provisions of the law, “a pension and grant shall be granted to the families of the missing or abducted person in case of proven death, either factually or by a court ruling.”
The issue of missing individuals due to detention or forced disappearance is not limited to the years associated with the reign of “ISIS,” but rather extends to the years of violence and civil war (2004-2009), as well as the period preceding that, during the country’s dictatorship and external wars. This makes Iraq the home to the largest number of missing persons in the world, with an estimated count of hundreds of thousands according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Conference of Victims of “Enforced Disappearance”
On Sunday, September 4th, 2022, the first conference for victims of enforced disappearance was held in Mosul, with the participation of representatives from local and international organizations and institutions, as well as parliamentary figures.
According to the political expert (B.G. – requested to be referred to by initials), the conference was held as a means of showing commitment to the United Nations, and he described it as a “courtesy” gesture. He pointed out that the timing of the conference – about a month before the visit of the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances to Iraq – proves it. He wondered, “Iraq signed the convention on this issue 12 years ago, so why wasn’t the conference held a year or even two years after the liberation of Nineveh? Why it took a full five years for it to take place?”
The conference yielded recommendations that urge for the prompt approval of a law safeguarding people from enforced disappearances. Additionally, the conference suggests recognizing those who went missing due to their affiliation or employment and got arrested by ISIS as martyrs, thereby entitling them to the benefits and rights accorded by the Martyrs Foundation.
The conference stressed the need to include adequate financial provisions in the federal budget for preparing the technical and logistical requirements necessary to excavate mass graves. Additionally, the conference recommended streamlining procedures by eliminating bureaucracy to accelerate the settlement of cases about individuals who have been abducted. Moreover, the conference also emphasized “the obligation of the authorities and relevant entities to officially disclose the fate of the kidnapped”.
It is apparent from the recommendations that there is confusion between terms such as enforced disappearance, missing, kidnapping, harm, and martyrs. Hence, B.G. thinks that what was stated at the conference cannot be relied on.
Taha Aziz, 76 years old, a citizen from western Nineveh, had his brother and son arrested by armed elements while attempting to flee towards the areas controlled by Iraqi forces in southern Anbar from the areas controlled by “ISIS” in November 2016. A parliamentary election candidate informed him in 2021 that many of the missing persons are still alive in secret prisons, but partisan entities demand large sums of money to release them.
He says, “I am ready to sell my house and give it to anyone who provides me with information about their whereabouts.”
Nashwan Salem Mohammed, Deputy Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nineveh province, denies the existence of an accurate statistic for the numbers of missing, forcibly disappeared, and kidnapped individuals, saying, “Each government agency has its database, which disperses efforts in the process of identifying and managing this file.”
During our investigation and communication with various organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Parliamentary Committee for Martyrs and Prisoners, the Martyrs Foundation, and activists involved in missing persons’ projects, there was a discrepancy in the reported numbers. Some have estimated that the overall number of missing persons in Iraq due to ISIS is as high as 27,000.
Upon delving into the file and conducting investigations within the concerned institutions in Nineveh province, we discovered that the number of missing persons ranges from 6,000 to 8,200, alongside over 850 individuals who were abducted by armed militias and their fates remain unknown.
Sami Al-Faisal, the President of the “United Organization for Human Rights,” affirms the figures we have obtained. Regarding the abductees, he states that they are residents of Mosul, and most of them are retired and ill. They fled Mosul during the period of ISIS control, aiming to reach the capital, Baghdad. However, “armed militias detained some of them in the Anbar desert,” and their whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
He adds, “The authorities keep silence and do not dare to open the issue,” calling for international intervention to settle this matter and verify the whereabouts of those who were detained, in case they are still alive.
Al-Faisal pointed out that he received information about the presence of 1330 samples from bodies in the forensic medicine in the city of Mosul, which have not yet been DNA tested to confirm their identity. Most of them belong to citizens who were detained by ISIS during its control over the city.
We inquired about this matter from the forensic medicine in Mosul, and due to the sensitivity of the issue, the employee we met preferred not to mention his name. He informed us that the remains belong to unknown individuals and that “families have not made any requests regarding them so we can conduct DNA testing on them.”
He indicated that “forensic medicine wanted to organize a database for the missing persons so that the state can recognize them as (martyrs) and they can obtain their rights accordingly.” However, the families of the missing persons rejected the idea, holding onto the belief that their loved ones are still alive, even after the passage of more than 5 years.”
Despite not having received official confirmation about whether these samples belong to the individuals who have been reported as missing or not, an informed source has suggested that they may be from ISIS fighters or supporters. As a result, no one is making any claims for them, given that many of the organization’s members are foreigners, and the locals either disassociate themselves from them or fear retribution if they step forward to claim the bodies.
According to our police source, some families are unwilling to accept the fact that their children have died. As a consequence, they avoid getting a DNA test done at the forensic medicine and opt to hold onto a hope that may never come true.
Accordingly, he anticipates that the actual number of missing individuals is significantly higher than the registered cases. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights concurs with this perspective in a report published on December 10, 2022, stating that “there may be a larger number of missing and forcibly disappeared persons, but their families have not taken legal measures to report them.”
Dalia Al-Mu’mmari, a civil activist who heads the “Humanitarian Line” foundation, is participating in a campaign launched in 2018, called “Where are the Kidnapped by ISIS?” in collaboration with other organizations that are active in following up on the same file with the families of the missing persons. She stated that the goal is to find out the fate of the missing persons by forming a government committee to investigate the facts under the supervision of the Iraqi parliament.
She confirms that the number of missing persons in Nineveh during ISIS’s control from 2014-2017, according to her documents, is 6,000 missing persons. And she adds that 430 people from Nineveh were kidnapped in 2017 near the control of Al-Wand, south of Nineveh, by “non-state actors” (referring to armed groups other than ISIS), and the kidnapped included lawyers, members of the army and police, truck drivers, and retirees.
By adding the “kidnapped” from Al-Wand to those kidnapped from Al-Baghdadi in the Anbar Desert, whose disappearances are confirmed by their relatives, it becomes evident that the number of individuals kidnapped by militias amounts to approximately 850. However, this number could be significantly higher due to the absence of a database or an official or unofficial entity that maintains statistics.
Hopes of the missing persons’ families
After ISIS took control of Mosul city, Marwan Mohsen, a specialist writer in social affairs, believed that leaving would be equivalent to abandoning his city. As a result, he chose to remain and observe the violations carried out by the group’s members and report them to the world on social media.
His 23-year-old daughter remembers it with great pride, saying that ISIS members did not interact with citizens in the early days of their control over Mosul in June 2014. Therefore, many people, including her father, were able to move around freely despite their opposition to the organization.
However, on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, ISIS members knocked on the door of their home located on the left side of the city and asked Marwan to accompany them because someone wanted to ask him some questions, with the promise that he would return on the same day.
The daughter says: “We used to hear during those days, and even before, what they started doing to their opponents, one of whom was a female obstetrician named Ghada Shafiq, who was a neighbor of my grandfather’s house in the Al-Tayaran neighborhood. They killed her with knives in front of her house in August of that year. So, when my mother learned they took my father, she fell unconscious.”
The family endured a heavy burden as hours turned into days and months in their search for their missing head of household. They left no stone unturned, knocking on every door. They traveled with other families searching for their missing loved ones, visiting the headquarters of the organization’s security, hospitals, and the forensic department where bodies were kept, but they returned disappointed every time.
“The hardest day in my life was Thursday, August 6, 2015. We heard that the organization had posted the names of those who had been executed at the forensic department. I remember my mother leaving the house barefoot, running to my uncle’s car,” said the daughter, placing her hand over her mouth in emotion, then added: “They had hung lists with the names of 2070 people on the walls of the forensic department. My mother did not get out of the car, she kept praying to God that my father’s name would not be among them, while my uncle, my older brother, and I searched the lists carefully but we did not find his name.”
More than 8 years have passed, and Marwan’s family still holds onto the hope of his return, and like other families, they have refused to submit a request to the relevant authorities to consider him a “martyr”.
The President of the Iraqi Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, has objected to referring to the individuals as “missing” and instead called to referring to them as “murdered” because they have already passed away. He emphasized the importance of acknowledging this fact during a television interview.
In turn, Salman Ghanim, an Iraqi local affairs specialist, and researcher, points out that one of the reasons for not resolving the issue of missing persons in Iraq is “their exploitation by political parties as part of their propaganda agendas during elections and self-promotion.”
Furthermore, he states that, following the defeat of ISIS, parliamentarians and election candidates were offering false hope to the families of the missing by assuring them that their loved ones would return. Some even propagated rumors that many of the missing were detained by security forces, who had discovered them in ISIS prisons during the campaign to oust the group from western Iraq.
He mentions that legislative elections were held twice after the liberation of Mosul, the first in 2018 and the second in 2021, and in both elections, Nineveh candidates focused their campaigns on the issue of missing and forcibly disappeared persons, claiming to take up their cause.
How does the status of being missing end?
To end the status of being missing, the person must either return or there must be evidence that they are alive or dead. In the Federal Appeals Courts of Ninawa, there are two ways to legally declare the death of a missing person: by providing evidence such as a body, witness testimony, or a court ruling. However, before this declaration can be made, there are certain procedures that the relatives of the missing must complete to manage the financial assets of the missing person.
According to lawyer Ali Saad, under Iraqi Law No. 78 of 1980 on the Care of Minors, a missing person is treated as a minor and is defined as “absent and their whereabouts are unknown, and it is not known whether they are alive or dead, according to Article 86.” As a result, the missing person’s relatives, including their father, mother, spouse, or child, must obtain a certificate of interdiction and guardianship from the Personal Status Court. Before that, it is necessary to confirm the status of being missing by a declaration of the applicant of the family of the missing person and two witness testimonies. The state of disappearance is then announced in local newspapers in the city where the missing person was last seen.
According to the lawyer, Article 93 of the Juvenile Care Law clearly states that if it cannot be proven whether a missing person is alive or not, one of his heirs may request the court to rule on his death. This decision is based on one of three specific conditions: Firstly, if there is conclusive evidence of death, such as witnesses who saw the person’s death with their own eyes. Secondly, if four full years have passed since the person went missing. And thirdly, if the person disappeared under circumstances that strongly suggest their death and two years have passed since their disappearance was declared.
Um Ghazi, who is 56 years old and has been searching for her missing son Fathi for 8 years, raises a concern: “What if he reappears after we have issued a death certificate for him?” She places her hand on her forehead, and adds: “Should I tell him that we wanted to forget him quickly and distribute his room belongings to his siblings?”.
“He was 19 years old when he was captured by ISIS elements in May 2015 in the Al-Zuhur area on the left side of Mosul and taken to an unknown location,” she says. “Some said that Al-hisba elements caught him smoking a cigarette, while others told us they found photos on his phone, and others said they heard him cursing the Islamic State.”
“After several visits to the Sharia court, Fathi’s father was threatened with arrest to prevent him from asking again,” she says.
Following her husband’s death in 2021, Um Ghazi still insists on holding onto hope and refuses to submit any request to any official agency to declare her son’s death.
The Iraqi-led international effort to liberate Mosul from ISIS did not occur until October 2016 and the liberation operation took approximately nine months, ending in July 2017. The vast majority of the estimated 96 to 98 mass graves, which are believed to contain the remains of the majority of the missing, has not been opened due to Iraq’s lack of necessary technical capabilities, according to officials.
A source in the mass graves affairs reported that the Iraqi government approved on March 13, 2023, the general budget, which has allocated a sum of 20 to 25 billion dinars specifically for the opening of mass graves. The source refused the claim that Iraq does not possess the necessary technical skills to carry out the task of opening these graves. Instead, the source pointed out that specialized personnel has been trained in Bosnia for this purpose. The primary obstacle in this regard was a financial one, which has been dealt with in the new budget.
Civil activist Mahmoud Hashem asserts that solving the issue of missing persons is linked to “opening mass graves.” He believes that ISIS deliberately transported groups of citizens whom its members detained to certain areas, dramatically killed them, and buried them there.
He stated that the biggest mass grave, known as “Al-Khasfah” or “Al-Khafsah” among the people of southern Mosul, contains the remains of “400 to 7000 civilians, army personnel, and police officers.”
“Al-Khasfah” is a natural crater located 20 kilometers south of Mosul in a remote area near a village called Al-Adhba. MP Ahmed Al-Jubouri describes it as an underground cavity that is tens of meters deep, where ISIS used to dump its victims. The group had partially filled it with dirt just days before losing control of Mosul.
Al-Khasfah was not only used by ISIS to hide any trace of their victims but also by the US forces who occupied Iraq from 2003 to 2011, according to information from the security sources we contacted. These sources stated that the US forces had disposed of the bodies of fighters belonging to jihadist factions who engaged in a street war against them at that time by throwing them into Al-Khasfah. And those factions did the same and threw dead American soldiers into it, as did the Iraqi forces who threw the bodies of fighters from those factions into Al-Khasfah.
Those sources confirmed that “ISIS” threw the bodies of the Iraqi army and police personnel into it, who were being abducted during its operations. After the group took control of Nineveh in June 2014, it began to throw the bodies of its opponents into it after each elimination operation.
Part of these allegations is confirmed by MP Ahmed Al-Jubouri, who stated in a press release on August 30, 2019, that “those who were buried in the Al-Khasfah cemetery, most of whom were members of the army and police, numbering 1,600 members, were those who could not escape after ISIS took control of Mosul.” He added that “the government considered them as deserters and fugitives.”
Rahima Hassan Al-Jubouri, a member of parliament, explains that the reason why Al-Khasfah cemetery has not been opened yet is that Nineveh only has one DNA testing device. She mentioned that the Nineveh representatives in parliament have decided to buy more than five devices to solve this issue and pave the way for the cemetery to be opened.
A source in “Nineveh Health” responds by saying that it is not related to DNA testing, but rather the presence of a large number of bodies piled on top of each other in a pit more than 100 meters deep, which was filled in two stages, the first by ISIS and the second by an unknown party two years ago.
He clarifies, “This will require international resources that are not available in Iraq, and this process may take several years to complete. He expresses doubt about politicians’ statements regarding the mass graves, asserting that these statements have not resulted in any efforts to investigate the other smaller graves that are more accessible. Despite there being dozens of smaller graves, only 7 in Badoush and Sinjar have been opened so far.
The United Nations Human Rights Organization in Nineveh estimates the number of buried in the Al-Khasfah cemetery at 4,700, while other unofficial sources estimate their number at 7,000.
Another mass grave in Nineveh is “Bir Aloo Antar,” a well-known grave located in the predominantly Shia district of Tal Afar (west of Mosul) where the organization carried out acts of genocide. Activists from the region estimate the number of bodies in it to be more than 2000. Another cemetery called the Sahaji is located south-west of Mosul, while other graves are scattered in various areas of Nineveh province, including the Sinjar district, where ISIS carried out acts of genocide after taking control of it in August 2014, killing and abducting about 6000 of its Yazidi inhabitants.
A collaborator with the “infidel regime”
Ibrahim (58 years old) was arrested by ISIS members in November 2015 on suspicion of being a candidate in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The organization usually punished candidates in parliamentary or local elections with execution, considering them collaborators with the “infidel regime”.
He says that he met many people in the detention room: ” New people would arrive daily while others would depart. Some of them would return to their families, while others would go to their graves.”
He clarifies that if someone’s hands are tied behind their back, it signifies that they have been given a death sentence. However, if they are brought in handcuffs or iron shackles that can be opened with keys, it means that they are prisoners being examined for accusations made against them.
He says that they would choose well-known individuals or those with positions or social presence and announce their killings to create fear, as in cases where executions were displayed in the street. As for the rest, they would be killed and buried without even informing their relatives.
Blackmailing the families of the missing
Following the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in the summer of 2017, criminal groups took advantage of families of people who had gone missing during the ISIS era or those who had been detained or kidnapped by militias during the liberation operations. These criminal groups provided the families with false information that their loved ones were still alive but demanded non-refundable payments in exchange for this information.
A lot of families hold onto the belief that their children who went missing during the ISIS era or liberation operations might still be alive and being concealed by either ISIS members or militias in undisclosed places within Iraq and Syria. Because of this, they are very cautious in their actions, afraid that any misstep might endanger their children’s lives. Consequently, they avoid reporting the scammers to the authorities or speaking to the media.
On the other hand, some people do not share the same belief and appear to be willing to speak up about what they know. However, they choose to alter the names and details of the situation to protect the emotions of other individuals involved. Throughout this investigation, we have made it our priority to respect their wishes and maintain the confidentiality of those concerned.
Azhar, 32, from the left bank of Mosul, tells the story of the arrest of his older brother “Wissam” in July 2014: “We all left for the city of Erbil in the early days of the army’s withdrawal from Mosul and the entry of ISIS into it in June, but some were spreading rumors that ISIS members had nothing to do with civilians and that they were only searching for members of the police, army, and politicians. Wissam believed this and returned to Mosul without telling any of us.”
The young man was unmarried, and he assumed that if he handles things quietly and remain at his family’s residence without leaving would not garner the attention of the organization. Unfortunately, he was incorrect, as ISIS militants raided his home and arrested him.
Azhar was unaware that his decision to contact “Al-Amniya” (the security), a branch of the organization, would lead to one of his worst mistakes. He was subsequently arrested and endured various forms of torture for four months, to obtain information that they claimed his detained brother was hiding from them.
He had never met his brother nor knew his whereabouts. One morning, he was thrown unconscious on the doorstep of his house after being subjected to torture. Despite the severity of the situation, he felt it was manageable compared to what was to come. He alleges that in late 2017, someone contacted his mother and provided information about Wissam’s whereabouts.
He continues, “It appears that the person who contacted us knew my brother personally. He provided details about Wissam and his recent conversations as evidence of his sincerity. We tried in vain to convince our mother that he was a fraud. He would call her using a private number, say a few words, and end the call. During the last call, he demanded $30,000 from her in exchange for information about my brother’s whereabouts. We managed to gather the amount after borrowing half of it and handing it over to a veiled woman as agreed between the fraudster and my mother. He warned her that Wissam would die if we informed the security forces.”
The person called that night and informed the mother that her son was in a town called Al-Baghouz in Deir ez-Zor Governorate in Syria, without any further details, and did not call again. According to Azhar, she kept the phone charged and close to her day and night until April 2019. At that time, the family managed to communicate with residents of the town, which had recently been liberated, but they denied having any knowledge about Wissam’s whereabouts.
Our source in the Ninawa Police stated that, in recent years, some relatives of the missing – without specifying their number – have filed complaints of fraud and scam against individuals who have received money from them in exchange for information about their children. He mentioned that charges have been brought in this regard against lawyers and even members of the army and police.
He clarifies, ” They acquire information and reach out to their victims using the missing persons’ lists held by the relevant authorities, informing them that they can discover their whereabouts in prisons located in either Baghdad or southern Iraq. They take a portion of the money they agreed upon, and subsequently, they procrastinate or disappear and do not respond to the families’ calls”.
One of these individuals, a lawyer in the Rashidiya area north of the city of Mosul, received sums ranging from $20,000 to $30,000 from several families, claiming that he had information about their missing children and that they were alive and detained in secret prisons in the capital, Baghdad, and the south of the country.
The writer of the investigation contacted the lawyer claiming that he is the brother of a missing person during the period of ISIS presence in Mosul. He provided him with the full name of his supposed brother and a fake date of his arrest in 2015, and he asked the lawyer to find him. The lawyer agreed immediately, confirming that he has connections with high-ranking security officials. According to him, he has successfully located numerous missing individuals using this method. He then requested an upfront payment of $10,000, insisting that it was non-refundable. Additionally, he mentioned that half of the sum would be given to police officers who could give him information.
The lawyer declined to enter into a legal representation agreement, which is a contract that outlines the tasks and fees the client agrees to pay the lawyer. The lawyer cited having officer partners and stated that it would compromise his legal standing to disclose their names. Additionally, he argued that it would be unfair for him to sign off on payment amounts that he would not receive entirely by himself.
Dalia Al-Muammar, a civil activist whose father was killed by ISIS, explained why families who are victims of fraudsters do not take legal action. According to her, these families hold onto hope until the very end, which prevents them from seeking legal help. She added that she is in contact with several mothers who were tricked by fraudsters into believing that their sons were alive and that there are many such cases.
She adds: “We know very well that they are lying, as none of the missing have been found since 2017. But what can we say to a mother who is living to know something about her son and prefers to believe the illusion that he is alive, even though in reality he is buried in a mass grave and it is almost impossible for her to obtain even parts of his remains?”
This investigation was conducted under the supervision of NIRIJ Network, with support from NAWA (Supporting Investigative Journalism in North Africa & Western Asia)