MANAMA, Bahrain – Families of foreigners believed missing in Iraq for more than a decade say the fall of Saddam Hussein has given them fresh hope their loved ones will be found, or at least their mysteries solved.
The largest group of foreigners thought to have vanished in Iraq are Kuwaitis. More than 600 disappeared during the Iraqi occupation in 1990-91. Earlier this month, Kuwait offered a $1 million reward for information that would help uncover their fate.
Several Shiite Muslims who left Bahrain in the late 1980s to study religion in Najaf, a southern Iraqi city and center of Shiite learning, disappeared when Saddam's regime killed hundreds of Shiites and Kurds while suppressing populist revolts that broke out after the Gulf War.
Issa Hassan was among them. In the dozen years since he vanished, his Bahraini family has been frustrated by tips about his whereabouts that never led anywhere.
"We never heard anything concrete. It was all second-hand or third-hand information," said his brother, Abdul Hadi Hassan.
In early 1990, 24-year-old Issa Hassan headed to Najaf, settled in at religious school and began his studies. Several months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Months after they had last heard from him, a Saudi man who claimed to have studied with Issa Hassan called the family's home and said Hassan was taken away by Iraqi troops. The family began their search.
In 1992, Hassan's father made a dangerous trip to Najaf to quietly inquire about his son's whereabouts, but turned up nothing. That same year, a neighbor visiting the eastern Iranian city of Qum met two young Iraqis at a bus station who had been in jail with Hassan.
They gave the neighbor their address in Qum and told him to come find them if he needed more information. A few months later, Hassan's father went to Qum but couldn't find the two men.
A year later in Syria, the missing man's cousin hung a poster at a Damascus mosque. A Kurdish refugee from Iraq saw it and told the family, through a cleric, that he knew Hassan, had been in a Baghdad jail with him and even had a letter from him.
By the time another relative went to Syria to look for the Kurd, the man had slipped back into Iraq.
Dozens of other tips trickled in during the next few years, but Hassan was never found. Many of the hints came from people who just wanted money, the family said.
The Bahraini families looking for their missing relatives are trying to organize a trip to Baghdad, but are waiting until it is safer. In the meantime, they await word from friends and relatives in Iraq, their hopes mingling with their fear.
"There's so much chaos in Iraq," said Abdul Hassan. "He could be still be in jail, starving with no food, no water, no one to unlock his cell."