x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Search for the missing continues

After the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, 376 people are still unaccounted for. In the next 18 months, the ICRC assisted by the government hopes to locate the victims of war.

Jean Michel Monod, the head of the regional delegation at the ICRC's headquarters in Kuwait.
Jean Michel Monod, the head of the regional delegation at the ICRC's headquarters in Kuwait.

KUWAIT CITY // Memories from the 1990 invasion and occupation by Iraq are kept alive in the Kuwait Memorial Museum, which runs on meagre donations from sponsors and young Kuwaitis who volunteer their time. Visitors are shown poignant displays of major events during the invasion with flashing lights and recorded gunfire for effect. The exhibits include the bullet hole-riddled head of a Saddam statue that allied forces took from his home town, Tikrit, plus photocopied letters that the museum said were left by fleeing Iraqis that show orders from Ali Hassan al Majid, Saddam's cousin and the governor of occupied Kuwait, and Uday Hussein, Saddam's son, to loot Kuwaiti institutions.

The museum's walls are lined with hundreds of photographs of Kuwaiti martyrs. This week the country and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) marked the International Day for the Disappeared with a promise to keep searching for missing Kuwaitis. One of the memorial museum's volunteers, Albara Alwuhaib, a Kuwaiti who served his country during the 2003 war by bringing disabled people to shelters during air raids, told the story of missing Kuwaitis.

"Abdulwahab al Muzayen had served in the Kuwait army for many years, he served in the token Kuwaiti force sent to Egypt in the 1970s, and he received the first-class medal of courage," he said. "He became the commander of Kuwait's military college and retired in 1990." Mr Alwuhaib said that after Iraq invaded, al Muzayen helped the Kuwaiti resistance by hiding one of two satellite radios that were smuggled into the country to notify coalition forces in Saudi Arabia of the Iraqis' movements.

"But Iraqi intelligence found out and caught him. That's the last we heard of him," Mr Alwuhaib said. "His body has never been discovered." The head of the regional delegation, Jean Michel Monod, said yesterday that the ICRC hoped to solve in the next 18 months half of the remaining cases of Kuwaitis who are still missing since the Iraqi invasion. The ICRC chairs a tripartite commission charged with discovering the 376 who are still missing from the conflict. The commission includes Iraq, Kuwait and four members of the coalition forces: France, Britain, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Mr Monod said the ICRC created the day to give "an influx to the whole issue" because "the missing, a few years back, had a tendency to fall off the radar screen". The commission was created after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. In the mid-1990s, it finalised a list of 605 missing Kuwaitis and since that time it has helped discover the remains of more than 200 people. No one was discovered alive after the list was compiled and all of the remaining missing persons have been legally declared dead.

Iraq must address the issue of missing Kuwaitis, along with border demarcation, war reparations and the return of stolen documents to have removed the sanctions allowed by Chapter Seven of the UN charter. Iraqi attempts to resolve outstanding issues with its neighbour bilaterally have led to tense relations between the two countries this year. "Today, the Iraqi government shows a stronger determination to go ahead and make progress," Mr Monod said.

"In 2004 we had the first, real, big expedition inside Iraq to exhume bodies." The search has since been hampered by violence in the aftermath of the US-led invasion, but Mr Monod said they hoped to resume this year or after Iraq's election in 2010. Aside from politics, the desert has presented its own challenges for the search. Sand, unlike many types of soil, returns to its original density when holes are refilled. Technology that is normally used to locate unmarked graves, such as ground-piercing radar, is not very effective in Iraq.

Instead, Mr Monod said, the ICRC finds "primary witnesses" by publishing pictures of the missing Kuwaitis in Iraqi newspapers with a request for help. But they have had limited success. He said since 2003, only two or three people have come forward to identify graves. The ICRC is a Swiss-run "global humanitarian agency" that is independent from the United Nations. Mr Monod said it is legally permitted, by the Geneva Conventions, to intervene in international conflicts and provides a large range of aid including the distribution of food, water and the construction of sanitary services.

The committee is also involved in cases of political detention and arranges phone calls between detainees in Guantanamo and their families in Kuwait. The ICRC is a permanent observer in the UN General Assembly. Mr Alwuhaib, the volunteer at the Kuwait Memorial Museum, said one of the first dead Kuwaitis found in Iraq was of Anam al Idan, who was caught distributing food to families in her area after the Iraqis imposed a curfew. She was dug up in Sawama in Iraq in 2003 along with three other citizens. The clothes of one of those dug up beside her, a fireman called Saad al Enezi, are in glass display case in the museum.

"I highly doubt they will find someone alive now. But I believe it's important to find the bodies," Mr Alwuhaib said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae