The Disappeared Children of Iraq

Conflict may have eased, but abductions of minors rob many of their well-being, their childhoods and even their lives

The Disappeared Children of Iraq
In Mosul, Iraq, children enjoy an amusement park during Eid al-Fitr in April 2023. (Ismael Adnan Yaqoob/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The news was heartbreaking. In April 2023, Fayee Hussein, a 7-year-old girl, was abducted, raped and murdered, her body dumped in the trash in the old Mashraq area of Basra in southern Iraq. The neighborhood suffers from poverty, with many people living in informal dwellings.

The child’s father had gone out to buy bread for the iftar meal during the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting and worship among Muslims in Iraq and the Arab world. Fayee trailed along behind her dad.

“When her father came home, my daughter stayed at the door of the house and didn’t come in. I asked her father to bring her, but he couldn’t see her anymore,” says the child’s mother, Nihad Qais.

But Fayee had disappeared, never to return. A neighbor’s surveillance cameras showed a young man in his 30s giving a small amount of money to the child, who then went away with him. Other surveillance footage confirmed that he had taken her away, and the family was able to identify the man, who was a resident of the area, and confronted him.

“The young man was lying and denying, and at the time her father and uncle broke down the door of the young man’s house to look for her, but they found nothing,” Fayee’s mother said. The suspect’s pregnant wife and his mother were living with him, but apparently were not at home that day.

Fayee’s family contacted the police, and he eventually admitted he had lured her and taken her to his home. There he raped and killed her, by strangling her with his hands. Then, he wrapped her body with a cover and threw it into a garbage bin near his home.

Nihad said Fayee had been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and hyperactivity and was receiving treatment for excessive movement that had caused her to drop out of school. She said the family was also suffering financially and unable to cover the costs of medical care for another daughter, who has a neurological condition.

On May 15, 2023, the Basra Criminal Court sentenced him to death. The following day the Supreme Judicial Council issued a statement on its official website stating: “The Iraqi judiciary has handed down various sentences ranging from execution to 15 years’ imprisonment for child rapists.” In addition to the case of Fayee in Basra, the statement cited the Rasafah Criminal Court in Baghdad as sentencing a criminal to death for abducting and raping two girls in Baghdad, and the Salahuddin District Criminal Court, in central Iraq, sentenced an offender to 15 years’ imprisonment for the rape of a child.

Fayee’s tragic case highlights the problem of child abductions in Iraq. While she was lured, abducted and murdered by someone from her neighborhood who was found, tried and convicted, many child abductions in Iraq are never resolved. The children’s families have no idea where they are or even if they are alive or dead. Government officials are unable to provide figures, and the motivations for the abductions range widely.

While researching the story of Fayee, I was in contact with many Iraqi families whose children had been kidnapped — more than 16 families in total from different regions in Iraq. They have many different stories to tell.

Fayee was abducted and murdered by a child rapist. But many other children in Iraq have been taken by armed groups wanting new recruits, or seized by families in sectarian disputes, or for ransom, or even for trafficking in human organs.

At the beginning of 2023, the National Security Service (NSS) arrested a gang accused of kidnapping and killing two girls in Baghdad with the aim of extorting money from their family. The NSS published video clips showing the moments when surveillance cameras recorded the kidnapping of the two girls and how the gang was subsequently arrested.

“Organized crime has spread widely in Iraq, especially after the ISIS phase, including for the purpose of trading, going to the Kurdistan region and then selling them to other countries [usually for the purpose of human trafficking], in addition to financial blackmail, selling organs and sexual assault,” said Ibtisam Al-Hilali, an Iraqi lawmaker and member of the Parliamentary Committee on Women, Family and Children. “Statistics to date are unknown.”

The 2023 Index of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime ranked the degree of crime in Iraq higher than two years earlier, placing it at eighth out of 193 countries around the world, second of 46 countries in Asia and first of 14 countries in West Asia.

“Unfortunately, all areas are vulnerable to abduction of children, especially the poorest areas. The majority of abducted children are males for use in trading, selling organs, begging, and usually the abducted children are 8 to 13 years old,” Al-Hilali said. “The proportion of parents selling their children is widespread because of poverty, but the large proportion remains for the purpose of trafficking, sale, sexual cohabitation and, consequently, murder.”

Al-Hilali notes that, if abducted children resist the captors’ attempts at sexual assault, they are often killed and dumped in abandoned buildings or near a river.

Legal efforts to improve the lot of children have faced some difficulty, Al-Hilali says, pointing to the political issues that have held up a child protection bill in Parliament for years.

“There has been a first reading of the law in the Chamber of Deputies and there have been deep discussions with all responsible and governmental bodies and with some ministries to include all paragraphs protecting the child and to carry out the maximum punishment for those who attempt to abduct them,” Al-Hilali says.

She adds: “We are proceeding with legislation because it has become an urgent need to be in conformity with international agreements signed by Iraq, but so far there is no real political will to proceed with the law.”

Legislative proposals could include the death penalty or imprisonment for 15 years for some of the crimes, penalties that already exist in some other Iraqi laws.

Hady Ismail (a pseudonym), a human rights defender, said that the causes of child abduction in Iraq vary from time to time and from one region to another. For example, after 2005, parents in some areas were wary of sending their children to schools in areas controlled by armed groups such as al Qaeda, where they carried out attacks near children’s schools and hospitals, as a distraction to allow them to kidnap children for the purposes of ransom or recruitment.

Ismail said a surge in abductions of children from 2014 to 2017 occurred for different reasons. “In that period, ISIS was abducting children to brainwash and recruit them inside camps in Iraq to carry weapons and then relocate them to Syria, Turkey and other countries. Some children have returned to their parents and some have yet to know their fate.”

“The Iraqi government does not yet have a database on how many children have been abducted for all Iraqi components,” Ismail added.

After the Islamic State group entered Mosul in 2014, according to Juma Saleh, a Shabak man who was associated with the Iraqi army and who lives in the Hamdaniya district in Bartella in northern Iraq, members of the group abducted his nephew, Hassan Atala Saleh, 16, as well as two of Juma Saleh’s adult brothers.

Juma Saleh had raised Hassan with his own seven children, after the boy’s father died of cancer while he was still an infant and his mother then remarried and left the child.

“When ISIS entered Mosul, I left the house with my wife and children and went to the Kurdistan region, but Hassan did not accept to come with us and stayed home with my two brothers, Waadallah Saleh and Mahmoud Saleh,” Juma Saleh said.

The brothers were in their 40s at the time. Waadallah uses a wheelchair, having had his left leg amputated resulting from injury in the Iraq-Iran War.

Hassan and his two uncles were displaced to another area but remained trapped in the region under Islamic State control.

“We stayed in contact with them and then their news was cut off,” Juma Saleh says. “After about 10 days had passed, I called my brother Waadallah again and an ISIS person named Abu Bakr Al-Anbari spoke to me. He cursed and insulted me and told me: ‘We have handed them all over to the Sharia court.’ … This was the only call between me and ISIS since then, and I don’t know the fate of Hassan and my two brothers. Are they alive or dead? Are they in or out of Iraq?”

In June 2023, UNICEF stated in a press release that 315,000 grave violations against children in conflict were verified by the United Nations from 2005 to 2022 worldwide. In Iraq, more than 3,000 were killed and nearly 6,000 maimed from 2008 to the end of 2022.

In 2004, the situation was precarious in Fallujah in western Iraq. Salem Tahsin (a pseudonym), a retired television director, was dealing with several press outlets asking him to cover Fallujah’s events. “I felt in it some kind of risk because of the control of al Qaeda, so I refused to go,” Tahsin says.

Tahsin was then kidnapped in Baghdad. “I dealt with foreign and Arab press outlets, and at that time any non-Iraqi press was targeted, and because of my work with them, I was kidnapped,” he says.

Tahsin does not know who kidnapped him, but they detained him for about six days in an abandoned house, where he was subjected to severe torture. He still bears the scars, despite having gone through a long journey of treatment outside Iraq.

“They wanted my information about journalists, and to explain to them why I didn’t go to Fallujah. They blindfolded us and I heard the voices of other people being held in other rooms,” he adds.

For a while after his release, Tahsin worked with telecommunications companies to provide internet services to a number of hospitals and government premises. “I visited camps for coalition forces and American soldiers to provide them with internet services as well,” he said, adding that he had then come under surveillance and received threatening messages — about seven of them written and others by phone — in which he was told he would be killed.

Tahsin’s son, 3 years old at the time, was kidnapped in Baghdad. The child, who had asthma, was about to go to the doctor with his mother and brother when a woman got out of a car outside their house and in a flash kidnapped the child and fled the scene.

Days later, the family received a note telling them to call a specific number, though the group did not identify itself.

“Thus began a series of negotiations with an armed group,” Tahsin said. “I could hear on the phone my son’s screams as they beat him by hand.”

After about a week, the family and the captors agreed to a sum of money to be handed over to free the child. Tahsin said that when the boy was released, he was motionless, like a dead body. A doctor’s examination revealed that he had been drugged, and when he woke up he acted very aggressively. The family then began planning for treating the child psychologically and physically outside Iraq.

Then came a threatening note containing five bullets — one for each member of the family. Tahsin recounted the contents of the note: “You are not listening. We told you to get out, but you are still here. Your value to us is the value of these five bullets.”

Tahsin fled Iraq with his family and now lives in a foreign country. He is now in his 50s and his son in his 20s. “My son is currently remembering small details of the abduction,” Tahsin said, “but because of what happened with him, as well as the frequent travel and lack of integration and being bullied at school, all these together have created a psychological condition. He now lives on sedatives as prescribed by doctors, and he tried to take his own life in adolescence.”

After their escape from Iraq, Tahsin received no further threats. But in 2007, “a list appeared from an armed group containing the names of journalists they did not want in Iraq, including my name. About a month after my son was kidnapped and we left the country, two of my cousins were killed.” The cousins were specialists in nuclear physics. They and their families were at home at the time.

“I do not know whether [the killers] are the same group that kidnapped my son or not, and it is impossible after everything that happened for me to return to Iraq,” Tahsin said.

Dr. Hatem (pseudonym), at the time a consultant physician and director of a hospital in Baghdad, said that “in 2014 and earlier, we heard about the theft of newborns every now and then. In our hospital, there were two cases of kidnapping in 2010, motivated by clan revenge, and in 2011, a gang that traded children and this gang entered my private clinic again in 2014, about 14 bargaining gunmen.”

“In two cases of kidnapping, we were able to return the children and we were forced to concede the case when the criminals were arrested because as doctors and nurses there is no protection for us,” the doctor said. “At the end of 2014, there was also one case of abduction in our hospital of a newborn child and he is still kidnapped to this day.”

Under both international and Iraqi law, there are many statutes designed to protect children from abductions and similar crimes. Enforcement is another matter.

Iraq “acceded to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in 2013,” explained legal expert Haider Al-Sufi, “and agreed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994.”

Domestically, “The Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969 contains many paragraphs that may lead to a death sentence or life imprisonment when a child is kidnapped, especially if they are subjected to rape and torture,” he added. “We also have a law for the care of minors and juveniles, and a law against terrorism and begging.”

“But we have weakness in investigating and combating crime, with a lack of modern technologies to detect crime before it occurs,” he said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Imad Alo, the director of the Accreditation Center for Security and Strategic Studies in Baghdad, attributed the abductions in part to previous government measures like a general amnesty in 2018, in which “the perpetrators of kidnapping crimes were included in the amnesty and went out to the street to form gangs again despite the fact that sentences had been issued against them.”

Khaled Al-Mahanna, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, said that the ministry’s criminal research department collects data on crimes and that “abduction is one of the crimes that has been very much reduced in Iraq.”

Yet official figures on child abduction in Iraq are difficult to come by. While the ministry offers general crime statistics in annual reports, of those made public, there are no numbers related to child kidnapping.

This report has been written with support from the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

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