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The BBC's Frank Gardner
reports on the plight of Kuwaitis searching for missing relatives
 real 56k

Monday, 15 January, 2001, 17:35 GMT
Agony of Kuwait's missing
Woman protesting about her missing sons
Families all over Kuwait are searching for their relatives

By the BBC's Frank Gardner in Kuwait

Ten-year-old Youssif Al-Khalaf has a brother he has never met - like more than 100 other Kuwaiti children

Weeks before Youssif was born into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers arrested his brother Ossama, for painting anti-Iraq graffiti.

Celebrations at the liberation of Kuwait
It is now 10 years since the Gulf War
Ossama was just 14 then. Today he is the youngest Kuwaiti prisoner still missing somewhere in Iraq. There are more than 600 others.

"I dream of meeting him," says Youssif. "I still pray that one day he'll walk right through the door."

The case of Kuwait's missing prisoners has become a national tragedy. Yellow ribbons still flutter from lampposts and the whole country feels unable to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the country's liberation while so many of its citizens are presumed to be still in Iraq.

National committee

A National Committee has been set up to both lobby for their return and to comfort the grieving families.

Dr Ibrahim Al-Shaheen, the committee's vice-chairman, said: "It is affecting every member of the society because we are very close.

"The families of those who were executed by the Iraqis have accepted this fact, although with sadness. But the PoWs are a problem and mothers, wives and children live with it every day, not knowing if their loved one is alive or not alive."

There are eye-witness accounts from those who say they've seen prisoners alive in Iraq long after the Gulf War ended

At Kuwait's Centre for Missing Prisoners, researchers believe they can prove Iraq is still holding their people.

They have compiled detailed records from the Iraqi intelligence files, which were abandoned when Iraqi troops made their dash back to Baghdad. They have built up a DNA database of those missing, from samples taken from relatives here in Kuwait.

Most importantly, there are eye-witness accounts from those who say they have seen prisoners alive in Iraq, long after the Gulf War ended.

One of those still clinging to the hope that her brother is alive is Ahlam Al-Qabandi. For her, even speaking about her missing sibling is an ordeal.

"We had a special person and we lost him. You can't imagine how the family is if a brother is missing, and you don't know where," she said.

International help

For nearly 10 years now, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been trying to solve the issue. Iraq, too, insists that more than 1,000 of its people remain unaccounted for.

But the ICRC has inspected Kuwait's prisons and found only 40 Iraqis, all common criminals. The Red Cross is concerned that Iraq has recently stopped co-operating with the international commission charged with finding those missing.

US solidiers arriving in Kuwait
More than 30 countries helped in the liberation of Kuwait
Britain is one of several countries pushing for answers. Along with the US and France, it is part of the Tripartite Commission set up after the Gulf War to repatriate the detainees.

The British Ambassador in Kuwait, Richard Muir, believes that Baghdad is withholding the truth about what has happened to the missing Kuwaitis.

"The Iraqis have not yet come through with the answers we believe they could and should produce, and that's really appalling when you consider that this is a humanitarian issue," he said.

"There are families in Kuwait of people who were civilians at the time of the invasion, were taken away by the Iraqis and of whom there is still no news whatsoever. That's causing great suffering here."

Kuwaitis believe that it is a deliberate ploy by Baghdad - a form of revenge for Iraq's crushing defeat in the Gulf War. But most of those missing are civilians, not soldiers.

Ten years on, their families are forced to wait in hope, year after year. They have little cause to celebrate this Gulf War anniversary. Instead, their pain goes on.

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