June 1, 2004

Searing Uncertainty for Iraqis Missing Loved Ones


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 26 — Huriyah Jassim Gomar carries around a sparse file that is all she has of her middle son, Adil: his photograph, an identification card, request forms written to the American military with responses that add up to zero.

She has visited Abu Ghraib prison seven times, she thinks. She has looked up his name in a computer database. She even sent a messenger hundreds of miles south to the huge American prison near the border with Kuwait.

Still she has not heard the first word on his fate. The only hard fact she has, from a family friend there at the time, is that Adil, 35, was arrested on Oct. 4, 2003, at an American military checkpoint near Baghdad with a loaded AK-47 rifle in his car.

"We don't know anything," she said. "There is nothing more I can say."

With all the anger over the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the scandal has deepened another reality for hundreds of Iraqi families — possibly thousands: a searing uncertainty over missing loved ones.

The American military is taking steps to improve access to information for the families of arrested Iraqis, and families of prisoners and groups that work with them say that there has been improvement, but that the problem is far from resolved.

The issue was central to a confidential report written in February by the International Committee of the Red Cross directed to the American-led occupation authorities: that the system for notifying families of prisoners effectively did not exist and that relatives often learned where a prisoner was housed only from other prisoners who had been released.

"Nine months into the present conflict, there is still no satisfactory system of notification to the families of captured or arrested persons, even though hundreds of arrests continue to be carried out every week," read the report, leaked to news organizations earlier this month.

Several requests to American officials here for comment on the issue went unanswered.

The steps to improve the system began after the military started its own investigation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib in January. The central databank that is the only formal way for Iraqi families to learn about prisoners, apart from visiting prisons themselves, now posts the names within a month, one official said.

The wait to see loved ones has shortened considerably under a policy, begun in April, to allow many more visits to prisons. The military has also begun thinning out the population of the severely overcrowded Abu Ghraib prison, aiming to cut the number of prisoners in half, to 2,000.

All this appears to have cut down the uncertainty, though it has led to a conflicting set of hopes among many families. With the violence on the streets of Iraq, some families would actually prefer to learn that their relatives are in jail.

"They really hope that, because they can find them," said Neven Ghazi, who handles dozens of requests each day from family members at an information center in the Mansur neighborhood here, where a regularly updated computer list of detainees is kept. "Because if they are kidnapped, maybe someone killed them."

Still, with an Army criminal investigation of at least 37 prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, there is no small worry about what happens to prisoners.

In a dingy house in Al Dura, a poor neighborhood in southern Baghdad, Sadiq Zoman, 56, lies in a coma, fed puréed chicken and vegetables through a rubber tube in his stomach.

Mr. Zoman, a hospital administrator who was a top local official in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in the northern city of Kirkuk, was arrested in an American military raid on his house on July 21, 2003. His family had no clear word about him until Sept. 4, when his wife and several of his nine daughters found him in a civilian hospital in Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown.

Mr. Zoman had a long beard, his hair hung to his shoulders, the family says, and his eyes wandered blankly around the room. His head had been fractured in three places, his thumb badly broken, the bottoms of his feet burned.

"I'd never seen him in such a condition in my life," said one of his daughters, Weehad, 18. "I said to my mother, `It's not my father.' "

The family believes that Mr. Zoman was tortured. Despite several requests, they say they have been unable to get any information from the American military about what happened.

An American medical report, obtained through Iraqi hospital officials with a bribe, suggests a disastrous chain of events: that heat stroke brought on a heart attack, which deprived his brain of oxygen and sent him into a coma.

The report made no mention of the skull fractures or other injuries that his family documented after his release from the hospital in Tikrit.

An e-mail request to the Fourth Infantry Division, responsible for the area at the time, went unanswered. But a spokeswoman for the division told The New Standard, a Web site with a reporter in Iraq who first wrote about Mr. Zoman in January, said the kind of injuries reported by the family "just absolutely would not be tolerated" by the military.

Another daughter, Rehab, 27, suggested that anger over each of thousands of prisoners held by Americans was multiplied many times among their large extended families and close tribal relations. The Zoman family, once prosperous, is now reduced to begging for support from family and friends.

"When they destroyed him, they didn't destroy him alone," Ms. Zoman said. "When they paralyzed him, they didn't paralyze only him. They paralyzed us all."

One of the few places that families of prisoners can go for information is Abu Ghraib itself, once the most feared of Mr. Hussein's prisons, about 20 miles west of Baghdad along a highway scorched from recent attacks on American convoys. These days the prison entrance is guarded by American soldiers.

At a little wooden shack at the end of a long line of barriers and barbed wire, a crudely painted sign on a shack staffed by American soldiers says, "Reception and Information."

The people who begin gathering there at dawn say information is in short supply. On a recent day, one group of men was looking for a family patriarch, Saghar Abdul Malek, 50, who was shot five times during his arrest in February in Ramadi, a center for sympathizers of Mr. Hussein. He was carried away unconscious, they said, and they have heard nothing about him since.

"I haven't seen my son for seven months," another man in line, Rahim Mahdi Saleh, 51, said bitterly. His son, Muhammad, 20, was arrested in October, also in Ramadi. His family has scoured every prison, computer list and aid group for information, with no success.

"There is no court, no information," he said. "I trust my shoe more than I trust the Americans."

Khraisan al-Aballi, 39, a trader, said his family's home in Baghdad was raided by American troops on April 30, 2003, during the lawlessness that followed the American invasion. He said his brother, Duraid, 47, had mistaken the American soldiers firing their guns for thieves and might have fired back. Duraid was shot and, the last his brother saw him, was lying in the house bleeding from his right side.

Khraisan al-Aballi and his 80-year-old father were taken into custody, and for 10 days, he contends, he was tortured: stripped naked and forced to stand and kneel for hours; kicked and beaten with a stick; ordered to confess with a gun to his head.

The charge, he said, was that the family had been harboring one of Iraq's former vice presidents, Izzat Ibrahim — a man Mr. Aballi said he had never met.

At one point, he said, an interrogator said to him: "You think you are speaking to a fool, but you are a liar and a criminal. We are going to take you and your family to a very deep hole."

He was finally reunited with his father, who was bleeding from his face and had been forced to listen to his son's torture. They were released then and have tried, fruitlessly, to find Duraid.

A year later, Mr. Aballi still has the marks from the handcuffs on his wrists, as well as a deep scar of anger at Americans who he says moved too quickly from suspicion to torture and have not respected Iraqis enough to provide information as basic as whether his brother is alive or dead.

"You know why?" said Mr. Aballi, who worked through the account of his family's ordeal with tears, many cigarettes and much difficulty. "It's because they have absolute force. No one sees what they do."

"They were right," he said. "They said, `We are going to put you into a very deep hole.' "