Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Children Held for Ransom

Crack police unit struggles to stop gangsters grabbing children to extort payment from their families.
By Kamal Ali

Eleven-year old Sara was abducted while waiting for a school bus in the upper-class Baghdad district of Sayediya. Four men bundled her into a car so hastily that her schoolbag was left lying on the ground.


Two days later, Sara's kidnappers telephoned her father and demanded a ransom of 20,000 US dollars. After nine days of talks, they settled for 5,000 dollars.


Although Sara is safely back at home, she has been left traumatised by the experience.


“I could not believe what happened to me. It was like a dream. They held me in a room with four broken windows and no light. I was very sick. I felt like I was almost dying,” she said.


Sara is one of hundreds of children, mostly from wealthy families, who have been abducted in lawless post-war Baghdad.


And while the number of incidents is said to be falling, the kidnap gangs still exert such fear over the city that even the police unit established to fight them has to keep its address secret.


People are so reluctant to come forward with information that no one interviewed for this story would agree to let their names be used.


“I never reported [the kidnapping] to the police station, as they threatened to kill my daughter if I did so,” said Sara’s father.


“There is no security in our country,” he continued. “The most important thing is that my daughter is safe now. God may punish those who are causing this destruction to our country.”


Iraqi newspapers are full of stories similar to Sara’s. There is the sad case of Nuha, who went out to a corner shop and never came home, or the taxi driver shot dead while trying to prevent a gang from kidnapping one of his passengers, a young medical student on his way to al-Kindi college.


Occasionally, there are happier outcomes, such as the boy from Sayediya who was mistaken for another child, possibly from a wealthier family. When the kidnappers realised their mistake, they released their captive unharmed.


But good-news stories are rare in today’s Baghdad, and to combat the rise in kidnappings, a special unit of 30 experienced police officers was established in late November.


The unit works 24 hours a day on cases referred to it by local police headquarters – it does not respond to direct approaches from the general public. Both the location of the unit and the identities of its officers are kept secret to avoid any chance of intimidation or bribery.


One police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the anti-kidnapping unit operates through a network of informants who provide information about gangs active in areas where abductions have occurred.


The officer said the unit is up against some 100 gangs in Baghdad and two neighbouring governorates. These groups carried out more than 350 kidnappings in October and November alone.


Some of them use young women – as they arouse less suspicion then men – to scout out neighbourhoods and check out children from wealthy families.


Other gangs even kidnap each other’s members – sometimes when one-time partners fall out over wealth looted after the war.


The police files contain a number of notorious cases like that of “A.S.”, a man who led an eight-member gang that terrorised the south Baghdad working-class district of al-Kifah.


Police say A.S. made a great show of outward piety by wearing the beard favoured by devout Muslims and by peppering his speech with references to the Koran.


Nonetheless, alleges the police file, the gang led by A.S. was notoriously brutal. It tortured kidnap victims with electric shocks and by beating them with cables and stubbing out cigarettes on their faces.


A.S. even sent photos of his victims to their families to extract payment from them faster.


The police say A.S. was imprisoned for robbery under the old regime, but released under Saddam Hussein’s general amnesty of November 2002.


Faced with a deluge of such veteran criminals, as well as plenty of new ones, police are having a tough time coping in post-war Iraq.


But they don’t want any more cases like Sara’s, and they clearly have the kidnappers in their sights.


Kamal Ali is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.