Nearly every Friday, there's a small Arab uprising in Baghdad. The location is Tahrir Square, a plaza marked by a renowned modernist sculpture that depicts Iraqis in a lifelong struggle for freedom. Alongside young protesters calling for an end to corruption and better services is a distinctive and resolute group: women in black robes holding photographs of their male relatives — the mothers, wives and sisters of the missing.
It's thought that over the past three decades of war, hundreds of thousands of people have gone missing in Iraq — tens of thousands of these since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Officials say most disappearances occurred in 2006 and 2007, when bodies were dumped in rivers or mass graves. But many of the missing are thought to be alive and languishing in jail, with no way for their families to find them.
One woman at Tahrir Square, Umm Haidar, said her son was arrested by U.S. troops in 2006 after a bomb targeting an American convoy exploded on a bridge in the western city of Ramadi. She said she has searched morgues and prisons for her son, but has found no trace.
"All I want to know," she said, "is if my son is dead or alive.
False Hope For Finding The Missing
Earlier this year, as uprisings around the region toppled two Arab leaders and forced others to announce reforms, the Iraqi government said it would launch a new program to search for the missing.
The plan was that the Iraqi army would take requests from families at locations around Baghdad. Then, a joint civilian-military committee would search prison rosters, hospitals and lists from newly discovered mass graves. At one station alone, some 600 families registered.
One soldier who did not want to give his name told us he worked on the new committee. But, he said, the registration is now closed, and officials have done nothing with the list of the missing. He says the program was simply a way to placate anti-government protesters.
"I think they just wanted to calm things down," he said, speaking through a translator. "And now families ... are coming and asking us, 'What did you do?' We tell them, 'Nothing. We couldn't find anyone.'"
'Because I'm His Mom, I Really Am In Pain'
Umm Haidar, who never made it to the registration committee, lives in a small village in southern Iraq. Her missing son, Haider, worked in the asphalt trade. She still hasn't washed his tar-stained pants.
She says years after her son disappeared, she was told he was being held in a notorious, secret prison in Baghdad's Green Zone. She then went to a distant relative who worked as a lawyer. He promised to help — for $1,000.
She gave the money to two uniformed officers. The lawyer promised she would talk to her son on the phone. That never happened; the lawyer disappeared.
"Because I'm his mom, I really am in pain," she says in Arabic. "Whenever I eat something, I say, 'Is he hungry? Is he asleep? Is he OK?' I can't stop ... thinking about him."
Umm Haidar's search didn't stop with the lawyer. She ended up giving another $1,000 to a man who claimed he was in jail with Haidar. He spent the night with the family, cried with them, assured them he would help find their son. In the end, though, he too disappeared with the money.
Now Umm Haidar packs and unpacks, folds and unfolds her son's unworn clothes.
A Fruitless Search
Salim al-Jabouri heads the Iraqi parliament's human rights committee. He says the trade in missing persons is so widespread that officers now make arrests so they later can extort money out of the families.
Jabouri is part of a group of officials and human rights groups that exposed the secret prison in the Green Zone. It's run by a special forces unit that answers directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
NPR asked Jabouri to see the list of people who are known to be in the secret prison. Scanning the list for Haidar, NPR flips through the pages, anxiously looking for his name. NPR checks it again. His name is not there.
Umm Haidar will have to be told her story has ended like the stories of so many families here: with a question mark.