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

Searching for the Fallen

Relatives search high and low even for scraps of information about loved ones lost in the war.
By Awad al-Tai'e

Major Imad Jasim Muhammad is buried alone in an empty garbage-strewn lot near a Baghdad crossroads, a tombstone of three dried-out palm fronds marking the grave.


Neighbours say he has lain there since shrapnel hit him more than a year ago as United States forces moved into Baghdad from the airport on the outskirts of town.


Friends of Muhammad buried him along with two other soldiers, whose bodies have since been recovered by their relatives.


Muhammed is one of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed in the battle for Baghdad, whose bodies have yet to be found by their families.


In the aftermath of the battle, neighbours, Red Cross volunteers, and fellow soldiers pitched in to provide the fallen with makeshift burials, recording locations as best they could for the next of kin.


Others buried the slain in graves in ancient Abbasid cemeteries, as the roads leading to the modern burial sites were closed.


Still more dead were hastily interred by the Americans.


On one occasion, Hussein Jasim, a volunteer for the Red Crescent, was called to a local recreation ground where Americans building a football pitch had discovered a human skull. On his arrival, he found dogs digging to try to get at soldiers' bones wrapped in US body bags. Jasim gathered up the remains and reburied them, instructing the Americans to play elsewhere.


Meanwhile, people hoping for information about missing male family members have posted names and photographs of their loved ones in mosques, markets, bus stations and hospitals in areas where fighting had occurred.


But as time passes, and with the Red Crescent halting its Iraq operations for security reasons, the search is becoming harder and harder for many.


A few, such as Nada Abd al-Latif Abd al-Jabr, an employee at the electricity ministry, do manage to find out what happened to their family members.


Nada's 60-year old father, a taxi driver, left their home on the morning of April 7 to do his work, despite reports that US troops were closing in on Baghdad.


"We warned him not to go out but he insisted," Nada said.


That day there was intense fighting throughout the city. The family didn't see him again, but assumed that he had either been injured and hospitalised or had taken shelter somewhere.


When the regime fell and the fighting ebbed, the family went to register their father's name in the Red Crescent's list of the missing. They also combed Baghdad's hospitals to no avail.


The family went to areas where the worst fighting had taken place, coming at last to Sayedia, where the highway led south out of Baghdad.


"We found dozens of people going round looking for their family members," Nada recalled.


There, an imam of the local mosque was able to match their father's name to the license plate of a destroyed car, from which a corpse - completely burnt - had been recovered.


The family obtained a death certificate, and buried their father in the Shia holy city of Najaf on April 29, three weeks after his death.


But many people are still seeking their loved ones, even just word of them.


Sabeh Mahdi Jawad went looking for his son-in-law, Rida Khudeir Mahdi, a volunteer for the Republican Guard.


The 30-year old father of two had been posted to guard a south Baghdad water mains, but had been transferred to the airport on April 3, just as the Americans were attacking.


Jawad and his family first searched Baghdad's hospitals, then POW camps across the country. Finally, having heard that Mahdi was last seen by the airport's fire department, Jawad went to the battle site.


"I saw many people looking for their missing, and there were dozens of bodies by the side of the road. I searched and could not find him," he said.


Jawad was later contacted by a comrade of his son-in-law's, Wisam al-Mishedani, recently released by US forces.


Mishedani said Mahdi had been wounded in the shoulder. Mishedani had propped the wounded soldier up against a tree, than attempted to make his escape from the advancing Americans.


That was as far as Jawad got in trying to trace his son-in-law, "I tried everything I could, but I couldn't find any information. My daughter and her children are always crying for their husband and father."


Awadh al-Tai'e is an IWPR trainee