The trauma of Saddam's rule lives on in Iraq
The table running across Samya Khasro's living room wall is a shrine to the missing: flickering candles and fading photographs of her 26 Iraqi relatives who vanished 35 years ago.
Khasro, who hails from a once-persecuted Shia Kurdish minority, says her family was gutted by the disappearance of so many loved ones – and the anguish of not knowing their fate. "We're still waiting. The day we get their bones, only then can we say they died," says the 72-year-old.
The 26 are Khasro's siblings, in-laws and their children. Across the broader family, more than 100 remain missing.
Iraq is one of the countries with the highest number of missing or disappeared persons, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The numbers range between 250,000 and well over a million, a discrepancy indicating both staggering loss and the difficulty of documenting such cases.
They have accumulated across decades of instability, beginning with ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's practice of executing and forcibly disappearing his opponents en masse.
Saddam's Iraq fought a deadly war with Iran in the 1980s and between 1987-1988 carried out the ruthless "Anfal Operation", which is thought to have killed some 180,000 Kurds. His forces also targeted the ethno-religious minority of Shia Kurds, with many jailed in secret, forcibly evicted from Iraq or simply snatched off the street.
Khasro, a former parliamentarian who spoke to journalists in her Baghdad home, believes that's how her family was shattered.
Bearing witness to Iraq′s history – Wadi al Salam
Covering over 1,480 acres and accommodating over five million bodies, Wadi al Salam in Najaf, Iraq, has been a burial site for over 1400 years. Housing the mortal remains of ancient prophets, imams, kings and scientists, 'the valley of peace' has also seen the burial of soldiers and militants killed in recent years fighting IS. The shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shia Imam, attracts millions of pilgrims every year. By Changiz M. Varzi
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Wadi al Salam is the largest cemetery in the world, which ″forms a prominent traditional method of land use.″ In 2011, the cemetery was submitted to UNESCO on the world heritage list
Most graves in the cemetery are built using baked bricks and the towers on the top of the graves are covered with clay. The size of the towers varies according to the socioeconomic status of the dead
The cemetery is popular as a playground with children who live in the streets around the burial ground. Wadi al Salam is located at the heart of Najaf Old Town and accounts for 14 percent of the city′s surface area
An underground vault in Wadi al Salam is the preserve of the wealthy. Such tombs often hold the remains of up to 50 people
During the 2004 battle of Najaf, the underground tombs in the cemetery were used to attack American marines. It was the first time, since the Vietnam War, that American troops had been ambushed from underground tunnels
Owing to the size of Wadi al Salam, those visiting the graves of their relatives often use three-wheelers
Dissimilar in appearance and material, these graves date from a range of different epochs. The most recent ones are made of cement and feature white marble headstones
Every day over 150 new dead bodies arrive to Wadi al Salam from all across the Middle East. In 2015 and 2016, when some of the fiercest battles with IS were raging, the number of daily arrivals could reach 350
The dead bodies are first taken to the shrine of Imam Ali for blessing. Their relatives carry the coffin three times around the shrine, concluding with funeral prayers held within
The recent fighting in Iraq has added new elements to this historic cemetery; one are the posters showing those who have been killed in current clashes. The posters bear photos of the militants or soldiers in uniform in the foreground and the images of the first and third Shia Imams in the background, along with images of Shia holy shrines
Wadi al Salam is also a source of income for many locals, who sell incense sticks, bottles of water to wash the gravestones and turbah, which is a square or round piece of clay from the soil of the cemetery used for daily prayer
Fierce fighting at the site over the last 15 years has left many parts of this world heritage site in ruins
At the heart of the cemetery pilgrims visit a tiny shrine, which is believed to house the mortal remains of the pre-Islamic Arabian prophets, Hud and Salih
Virtually every family in Iraq has been touched by a case of enforced disappearance and its seemingly endless grief. Khasro's husband Saadoun has not seen or heard from one of his brothers since they were young men and another left Iraq 45 years ago, fearing persecution.
As they age, Khasro fears the answers her family has sought will be buried along with the older generation.
"We'll go eventually. But will the grief of those who come after us be the same as our grief?" she asks.
Iraq has made some progress in its missing case files in recent months, uncovering several mass graves dating back to the Anfal campaign and the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait. But families have expressed frustration that the scale of the work dwarfs the government's allocated resources.
"Even the director of mass graves has zero dinars allocated to him. At this point, we're betting on support from international organisations," says Khasro.
Chief among them is the ICRC, which advocates on behalf of the surviving families and helps hand over exhumed human remains for identification.
"Our message to the government is that these families need more support, so this file can eventually be closed one day," ICRC spokeswoman Salma Awdah told journalists.
More than 250 kilometres north of Khasro in the province of Kirkuk, another family lives in similar pain.
Ronak Mohammad, 63, has not seen her husband since he was drafted as a reserve soldier in 1982.
"He left the house and now I've got nothing except his wristwatch and wedding band," says Mohammad, who has no information of his whereabouts, much less a death certificate.
The mother of three now lives in a residential complex in Kirkuk that hosts families who are missing loved ones. Flipping through a thick album of black-and-white wedding photos, she says her youngest daughter was just 20 days old when her father left.
"She doesn't know her father. She just has these pictures and he visits her in her dreams," Mohammad says.
Her neighbours are coping with much more recent wounds: relatives missing since the Islamic State group's bloody blitz across northern Iraq in 2014, when jihadists executed civilians en masse, kidnapped minorities and forcibly recruited children.
Zainab Jassem suspects her mother, Bushra, was kidnapped by IS in 2014 on her way back from a town about an hour away. The two worked as seamstresses and Bushra was on her way home after delivering clothes she had tailored to customers.
But jihadists stopped the bus she was riding and forced the passengers off, accusing them of spying. "They called us and asked if my mother was passing on information," says Jassem, who has not touched her sewing machine since her mother's disappearance. No one knows what happened next.
Her voice breaking, Zainab says she learned of the apparent kidnapping during Eid ul-Adha, a Muslim holiday.
"It's a three-day holiday. We didn't celebrate any of it," she said. "We had been hoping and saying, maybe she'll come back tomorrow... Maybe she'll come back the next Eid." (AFP)