Iraqi families search in vain for their missing

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Underneath the blazing sun at Baghdad’s Allawi bus station hundreds of families from across Iraq’s sectarian divide await the arrival of the latest batch of freed prisoners in the hope of finding a long-missing relative.

“For the last year, every time I hear about a prisoner release I come here — though to tell you the truth I think my brother was actually killed,” said Ammar Kazem Alwan, a 35-year-old Shiite from the eastern suburb of Baghdad Jadida. Mothers, fathers, and other relatives wait in the sun, clutching chocolates to welcome family members they haven’t seen in years — many of whom they aren’t even sure were even in custody.

In a country where missing persons are measured by the hundred and there is no official organisation to track those who have disappeared, a prisoner release offers the slim hope of at least some news. Alwan last saw his brother Jawad in March 2005 when he took a minibus to Karbala to pay his respects at the grave of another one of their brothers who’d been killed in a car bomb three months earlier. The minibus was stopped by Sunni insurgents masquerading  in the restive town of Yusifiyah. Witnesses say the gunmen commandeered the vehicle and its passengers and took them somewhere.

“I’m convinced he was murdered for sectarian reasons, but my mother insists that he’s still alive and that I must find him among the detainees,” he said.

“So I spend my time searching. I’ve asked to visit all the US and Iraqi prisons and I am well known in hospitals to the north and south of the city.” Eventually, five buses filled with former prisoners pull into the station and Alwan surges forward with his fellows in misfortune, shouting names, hoping someone will at least have heard of their missing person.

On Saturday 368 prisoners from several US-run detention centres in Iraq were released as part of Prime Minister Nuri  Maliki’s ongoing prisoner amnesty that has seen 3,000 releases since June, though 14,000 remain in custody.

None of those being released are suspected of carrying out actual violent attacks but instead are accused of sympathising with or aiding the insurgents.

In this crowd, sectarian and ethnic differences fall away as everyone is searching for a missing loved one. Women, men and children press towards the newly released detainees waving photos of their disappeared.

Mohammed Al Tarbouli, a 20 year old released from Abu Ghraib prison, recognizes two of the pictures, much to the joy of the parents. “They are alive and were in the same prison as me,” he said. The parents showered him with chocolates in thanks for the news.

As the others push forward their own pictures looking for similar good news, Tarbouli is not sure what to say. “I’m sorry, I don’t know them,” he said. Then, he tried to soften the blow, “I just don’t recognise them because I am very tired.” Hussein Karim Amin, a Kurd, last saw his brother on August 9, 2003 on Palestine Street in the north of the capital. “

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