The deep psychological scars left behind following a traumatic experience often calls for a closure to help the slow and painful healing process. The need for closure stems from an individual’s dislike towards ambiguity and a desire for a conclusive answer to whatever happened. Finding closure allows a person to finally accept what occurred, however painful, and to overcome the limitations imposed by ambiguity so that they can move on in life.
Nearly a quarter-century after Iraq’s brutal aggression of Kuwait, more than 370 families still await closure on the whereabouts of their loved ones who were abducted during the invasion. For more than twenty-four years these families have been waiting in pain, demanding answers from a handwringing and silent international community.
Nearly a quarter-century after the invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990 by Iraqi forces, the memory and trauma left behind by those tumultuous seven months remain vivid in the minds of everyone who experienced it. But in the case of families of hundreds of Kuwaitis and other nationals whose loved ones are still unaccounted for, these memories are even more tragic and heart-rending. Efforts by Kuwait and the international community have yet to establish the whereabouts of 369 of the 605 persons documented as having gone missing during the invasion. Only 236 remains have, thus far, been found and identified; the families of those still remaining yearn to lay their loved ones to rest.
Today, looking around it is almost difficult to believe that a little over two decades ago Kuwait was the victim of brutal annexation when its infrastructure was destroyed, its oil wells put on fire and many of its citizens subject to atrocities. While time, money and resilience have erased the physical scars inflicted on the infrastructure and environment of Kuwait used by the seven-month long occupation, in one area little progress has been made since August 1990. The psychological wounds left behind by the invasion on families of those missing remain as raw today as on the day it happened. For these families the horrors of Iraqi occupation have not abated; they continue to remain the forgotten victims of Saddam Hussein’s seven-month long reign of terror.
Following the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the United Nations passed resolution 686 and 687 as part of a broad cease-fire agreement which was accepted by Iraq. These two resolutions called upon Iraq to immediately release all Kuwaiti and third country nationals held prisoner, and to facilitate their repatriation by extending all co-operation to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A special committee, initially called the ‘Riyadh Committee’ and later renamed the ‘Tripartite Commission’, was created under ICRC auspices to co-ordinate swift repatriation of POWs in both directions.
The Tripartite Commission, so named because members of the commission consisted of the allied coalition (France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) on one side and Iraq on the other, and under ICRC auspices and chairmanship as a third party, immediately began its work of handing over POWs from both sides to the ICRC. Many other prisoners were freed by insurrectionists during the Shi’ite uprising that took place in in southern Iraq in March 1991. Some 6,000 Kuwaiti POWs found their way home through these channels.
When it became evident that many persons had not yet returned, as reported by their families, a specific ‘Plan of Action’ was adopted by Kuwait for tracing of POWs and civilian detainees unaccounted for and for the repatriation of mortal remains when found. The Kuwait National Committee for Missing and Prisoner of War Affairs (NCMPA) was established on 15 August, 1992 and mandated with following up on the release of all Kuwaiti POWs & Missing Persons being held in Iraq. The NCMPA was also requested to take necessary actions to ensure the safety and human rights of all the POWs and Missing Persons based on International laws, and to provide support and aid to the families of the POWs and Missing Persons by fulfilling most of their needs and requirements.
The NCMPA compiled dossiers and provided incontrovertible proof to the United Nations, the ICRC and the Arab League that 605 Kuwaiti and other nationals were missing or unaccounted for as a result of the Iraqi occupation. The evidence provided included eye-witness reports from released POWs that some of the missing individuals were seen and contacted in the Iraqi prison system, as well as reports from family members who witnessed their relatives being arrested and forcibly removed by the Iraq armed forces. However, even more irrefutable was the evidence provided by official documents from the Iraqi occupation that chronicled in detail the arrest, imprisonment and transfers of significant numbers of unaccounted Kuwaitis and other nationals from one detention center to another.
Despite the presence of such indisputable proof and the best efforts of NCMPA along with help from international authorities and agencies, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein remained adamant that they had incarcerated 126 prisoners, but lost track of them during the Shi’ite uprisings in March 1991. Despite the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime in 2003, and the setting up of a newly elected government, Iraq has still not been able to provide any further details on those missing since 1990. In addition, the team assigned to excavate and examine suspected mass burial sites has not returned to Iraq since 2005. Today, not only has information from the Iraqi government dried up but it has also become dangerous to travel there without guaranteed protection.
“We started with 605 missing Kuwaitis or third country nationals," said Ibrahim al-Shahin, Vice President of NCMPA. “Now we have retrieved and identified the remains of 236 people, who were brought from mass graves in Iraq and buried in Kuwait. 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.” He went on to add, “Earlier we used to insist they are alive and that the Iraqis must bring them back to Kuwait alive. Now we have changed. We say we must know if they are dead or alive - but we cannot accept that they are missing."
Kuwait and NCMPA have opened every door, explored every channel of communication, and have been unwaveringly willing to negotiate on any level within the parameters set out by the United Nations. The position of the State of Kuwait, NCMPA and the Kuwaiti people is simple; we cannot and will not give up demands for a complete accounting. This international Human Rights issue, involving needless cruel suffering, must be resolved. But unfortunately, despite the support of the UN, the allied nations, many neutral nations, international humanitarian agencies, human rights organizations, and prominent individuals, the issue has not been resolved.
As part of his mandated report every four months to the UN Security Council, on compliance by Iraq with its obligations regarding the repatriation or return of all Kuwaiti and third country nationals or their remains, 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.
Meanwhile, for the hundreds of parents who have lost sons and daughters, for children who have lost parents, and for families that have lost their loved ones, the seven-month long ordeal is not yet over; it continues to rake their bodies and ravages their minds. Families continue to suffer the trauma of not knowing what happened to their fathers, mothers, sons or daughters. The children, who grew up afflicted by the knowledge that for no fault of their own they were deprived of their parents’ love, continue to remain prisoners of a regime long gone, and even though they continue to live in free Kuwait.