Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 14:26 UK

Kuwaitis mourn the missing in Iraq

Grief-stricken relatives
Kuwaitis say their missing loved ones will not be forgotten

After Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait in August 1990, hundreds of Kuwaitis and nationals of other countries went missing.

The Iraqis were forced out by an international coalition in February the following year, but as the BBC's Christian Fraser reports from Kuwait City, many people have still not been found.

Ahmad Esa Matar remembers all too clearly the day the Iraqi soldiers took his 17-year old-boy.

"They came early in the morning," he said. "Six o'clock, while Khaled was still in bed."

Nineteen years later, the day is fresh in the memory and still painful to recount.

"I saw him later that day, in the prison," said Ahmad. "He was tired, they had beaten him around the face. He cried when he saw us. He said he thought he'd be killed. That was the last time I saw him."

Does Ahmad think about that day a lot?

"Too much," he said. "Every day - for 19 years."

I have a missing brother and a cousin who was found and DNA identified. How can I ever have any sympathy for the Iraqis?
Relative of missing Kuwaiti

Khaled's body was recovered from a mass grave in Samawa in Iraq in 2004. He had been blindfolded and shot in the head.

But the return of the body for burial in Kuwait has helped Ahmad and the family to start rebuilding their lives.

There are plenty of other families in Kuwait who are still clinging to the hope that their loved ones might yet return. Iqbal still waits for her brother Amman - even though she knows deep in her heart that he is dead.

"Hope is what drives me on," she said. "It keeps me strong."

But it also twists the agony.

"I hate the Iraqis for what they have done," she said.

"I have a missing brother and a cousin who was found and DNA identified. How can I ever have any sympathy for the Iraqis?"

It is thought that all the prisoners of war were executed within three days of Iraq's withdrawal in February 1991.

Saddam Hussein's henchman Ali Hassan al-Majid - otherwise known as Chemical Ali - had ordered that they should be buried in mass graves in different provinces of Iraq.

Retrieved and identified

"We started with 605 missing Kuwaitis or third country nationals," said Ibrahim al-Shahin, Vice President of the National Committee For POW Affairs.

"Now we have retrieved and identified the remains of 236 people, who were brought from mass graves in Iraq and buried in Kuwait.

The missing
There is no sign of hundreds of Kuwaitis who went missing

"The remaining 370 or so are still open files with the International Committee of the Red Cross, listed as missing until it is proved they are dead."

The Kuwaitis have built a museum in memory of those who were killed. Around the walls are the portraits of all those who went missing.

A piece of black tape has been stuck across the corner of some frames, signifying those who have have been found and returned.

Adel al-Abduljader from the Committee for POWs showed me around the museum and the photographs of the mass graves they have excavated.

The sites were identified from information supplied by coalition forces and the Iraqi authorities.

They are pictures that echo the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

'No mercy'

"The prisoners were lined up and ordered to kneel, blindfolded," said Mr Abduljader. "And then they were shot twice in the head. Women and men together. No mercy.

Identification of the remains can provide some comfort for the relatives

"Each row was covered with a thin layer of sand before the next victims were brought forward."

The job of identifying the remains is now in the hands of the Ministry of Interior's Criminal Evidence Department.

In one case, where three brothers were found in the same grave, they carried out facial reconstruction to identify the remains.

"Each set of bones is given its own number," said the deputy director of forensic evidence, Brigadier Dr Fahad al-Dosari.

"The number corresponds to a date and place where the body was found.

"These are the sites we have excavated so far - Samawa 89 bodies, Karbala 78, Ramadi 25, Amarah 33 and Kuwait 2," he said, going through his list.

"On one occasion a doctor who was working with us identified his brother from the bones we had found. "

But the team has not returned to Iraq since 2005. The information from the Iraqi government has dried up and it is dangerous to travel without guaranteed protection.

Oil wells on fire
The Iraqis set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells when they withdrew

"We would go back tomorrow," said the Brigadier. "We have all our tools. We have our team. We are ready."

The Vice President of the POW committee, Ibrahim al-Shahin, accuses the Iraqi government of dragging its feet.

"We feel the new government in Iraq should really look at this matter more sincerely.

"We hear a lot from them in meetings about how they are also the victims of Saddam. We understand that. But we tell them that we are dealing with the Republic of Iraq, which is responsible for locating these mass graves and helping us retrieve these bodies, regardless of which government is in power."

UN concern

That is a sentiment echoed by the United Nations. Last month, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed concern that despite some progress the remains of 369 Kuwaiti and third country nationals had not yet been identified.

He noted that the Kuwaiti national archives had also not yet been found.

In October, Kuwait appointed an ambassador to Baghdad, and is waiting for Iraq to reciprocate.

But the POW museum and the importance the Kuwaits attach to honouring and recovering their dead reveals that even today - 19 years on - there is a feeling of injustice.

It will linger until all those missing are returned home.

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