View Full Version : Dim Whispers of the Missing

04-17-03, 08:11 AM
Dim Whispers of the Missing

AGHDAD, Iraq, April 16 This crowd speaks in names and dates.

"Shahab Hassan, 1991," a despairing mother says.

"Hussein Naim, 1997," a sister cries.

In halting English, a brother shouts, "Hashem Mehdi, 1995."

For days now, scores of desperate Iraqis have turned up outside the state security complex here, searching for their missing loved ones, begging the American troops who guard its gates to help them find the relatives whom they believe to be trapped in a prison beneath the sprawling grounds.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, 30 years of buried history is slowly being resurrected. The Iraqis who appear each morning calling out names and dates of arrest are hoping that their missing brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles will be resurrected along with the past.

They hold up one finger, two fingers, four fingers, trying to explain to the Americans how many relatives are supposedly in the jail. They throng the gates from dawn to dusk, holding up photos of their vanished loved ones and holding desperately onto hope.

They are hoping in vain, it seems. The Marines say they have searched the complex from top to bottom and discovered nothing. There is no secret prison, they say.

"It's become an urban legend," said Sgt. Shane Parks, a weary Marine who was guarding the gate this afternoon. "We've told them a hundred times there's no one here, go home. But they don't want to hear it. They come back every day."

The miseries of Baghdad are legion, but perhaps the most miserable is the heartbreaking optimism of those who believe that, with the government dismantled, their missing relatives will reappear.

The dead stay dead. The wounded stay in hospitals. But the memory of those Iraqis who have simply vanished and there are thousands stays stubbornly lodged in their family's hearts and minds.

"With the will of God, we will find him now," Mehdi Kadom, 25, said of his uncle, Saleh Mukhtar, who disappeared in 1982. Mr. Mukhtar was arrested for being a member of a Shiite opposition group.

"He's still alive," his nephew said. "I know it. I continue to carry hope."

Mr. Kadom's hope, like the hope of others, flourished when the First Marine Division captured the state security complex last week and commandeered it as its headquarters.

"Nobody came here before the Americans arrived," said Ali Salman, whose two cousins were beaten and arrested by the secret police one in 1983, the other in 1985. "It was dangerous to even show your face here. Who would put their finger in that fire?"

This morning, however, perhaps 100 people stood outside the gates. The stories they told were eerily similar. Three men in a car came in the middle of the night to haul off someone's brother. Four men jumped from a car in broad daylight to snatch somebody's cousin from the street.

"Why won't they let us in?" asked Jamil Abid Ali as the armed marines looked on. The police took his brother away in 1991. "Everyone knows our families are in there. The soldiers know this, too, but they do nothing. The Americans, they are as bad as Saddam Hussein."

They say people have heard voices coming from underground, crying for help. When pressed, however, no one admits to having the heard the voices themselves.

Similar rumors percolate about the Americans. They have the blueprints to the prison but have not used them, the Iraqis say. They have already been in contact with the Yugoslav architect who designed it, but do nothing, the Iraqis say. They have sophisticated sensors but leave them sitting in warehouses, the Iraqis say.

Trying to dispel the rumors, an Iraqi man was invited inside the complex and given a complete tour as a representative of the family members. He said the American took him everywhere and there was nothing.

He said the families were simply desperate. The imagination is a savior when the truth is grim, and those haunting voices cannot be ignored.

"What they are hearing is the ghosts of the dead," he said.