When he first learned that US troops had deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraqi engineer Hazem Mohammed thought he might finally find his brother, who had been shot dead and dumped in a mass grave after a failed uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991 .
It was not only Muhammad’s hopes that were raised after the United States-led invasion in March 2003. Relatives of tens of thousands of people who were murdered or disappeared under the dictator believed they would soon discover the fate of lost loved ones.
Twenty years later, Mohammed, who was hit by two bullets but survived the massacre that killed his brother, and countless other Iraqis are still waiting for answers.
Dozens of mass graves were found, testifying to atrocities committed under Saddam’s Baath party. But work to identify victims of historic killings has been slow and partial in the chaos and conflict that has engulfed Iraq over the past two decades.
“When I saw mass graves being opened indiscriminately, I decided to keep the location of the grave a secret until there was a stronger state,” Mohammed said.
As the excavations continued, more atrocities were committed in sectarian conflicts and amid the rise and fall of armed groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), as well as Shiite Muslim militias.
Today, Iraq has one of the highest numbers of missing persons in the world, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is estimated to number hundreds of thousands of people.
It was another 10 years before Mohammed led a team of experts to where he, his brother and others were captured when Saddam’s forces crushed a mostly Shia insurgency at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
At the time, they were forced to their knees next to trenches summarily dug on the outskirts of the southern city of Najaf and shot. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed by Saddam’s forces during his rule.
The remains of 46 people were exhumed at the site, now surrounded by farms, but Muhammad’s brother was never found. He believes there are still more bodies missing.
“A country that does not deal with its past will not be able to deal with its present or future,” he said. “At the same time, I sometimes forgive the government. They have so many… victims to deal with.
More than 260 mass graves have been excavated so far, dozens of which are still closed, according to the Martyrs’ Foundation – a government body that deals with identifying victims and reimbursing their relatives.
But resources are limited for such a huge task. In a branch of the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, a team of about 100 people is processing remains from mass graves, site by site.
Department head Yasmine Siddiq said they identified and matched DNA samples from about 2,000 individuals, out of about 4,500 bodies exhumed.
On the shelves of her storage room were the remains of casualties from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War: skulls, silverware, a watch, and other items that could help identify victims.
The forensic efforts are being supplemented by archivists studying reams of documents from Saddam’s Baath party, which was disbanded after his overthrow, for the names of missing persons who have yet to be identified.
Mehdi Ibrahim, an official at the Martyrs’ Foundation, said his team identifies about 200 new victims each week. The names will be published on social media.
To date, the foundation has processed about half of the one million documents in its possession, just a fraction of Iraq’s dispersed archive. Most of the Baath party-era documents are held by the government, while others were destroyed after the invasion.
Some atrocities are investigated more quickly than others.
According to Siddiq, massacres committed by ISIL fighters, who captured much of northern Iraq in 2014 and held it for three violent years, have been prioritized.
The highest victim identification rate was achieved for an incident known as the Camp Speicher massacre by ISIL, a mass shooting of army recruits. “Most families have reported their missing and most of the bodies have been recovered,” Siddiq said.
The Martyrs Foundation says the killings resulted in about 2,000 “martyrs”, including 1,200 dead and 757 missing.
In Sinjar, where ISIL committed what United Nations investigators described as genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, about 600 victims have been reburied, with about 150 identified.
Other disappearances remain unexplored. In Saqlawiya, a rural area near the Sunni city of Fallujah, families lose hope of discovering the fate of more than 600 captured men as the area was recaptured from IS by security forces.
According to witnesses, UN staff, Iraqi officials and Human Rights Watch, Shiite militias seeking revenge against IS have rounded up Sunnis from the town of Saqlawiya.
From her living room in Saqlawiya, furnished with only a carpet and a thin mattress, Ikhlas Talal cried as she scrolled through the photos of her husband and 13 other male relatives who disappeared in early June 2016.
‘We have no priority’
Talal would not give a description of the uniformed men who took them away, fearing retaliation. But she and other women in the neighborhood spent years searching for their husbands, fathers and sons, traveling through Iraq and contacting prisons and hospitals – all to no avail.
“The Iraqi government must take all steps to locate the missing persons and hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch.
The Martyrs’ Foundation and the Iraqi Interior Ministry have not responded to requests for comment on the Saqlawiya case.
Abdul Kareem al-Yasiri, a local Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) commander whose unit is currently stationed near Saqlawiya, denied that the PMF played any role in the disappearance of people from the area in the war with ISIL.
“These allegations are baseless and politicized to smear our troops and we reject them,” he said, adding that he believed IS was behind the disappearances.
Talal wants her husband to be officially recognized as a martyr so that she can claim a monthly pension of about $850.
“We are not a priority,” she said, surrounded by half a dozen children whom she barely gets to eat with the help of local NGOs and small-scale agriculture.
Questions remain, even about the better-reported incidents.
Majid Mohammed last spoke to his son, a combat medic, in June 2014 before the Camp Speicher massacre. His name was not one of the hundreds of victims identified by Siddiq’s team, and Mohammed remains in limbo. His wife Nadia Jasim said successive governments had failed to tackle enforced disappearances.
“The hearts of all Iraqi mothers are broken because of their missing sons,” she said. “With all the time that has passed since 2003, we should have found a solution. Why are people still disappearing?”