Sitting in their tiny Annandale apartment decorated with glass chandeliers, mirrors and Oriental rugs, Munira and Hamid Morad watched Saddam Hussein's statue come tumbling down with unbounded joy. "Great day, that day!" Munira said. "My mouth came dry with how much I prayed for America, for Bush."
But the demise of Hussein's terror dictatorship also meant that the Iraqi couple face a reckoning with their most fervent hope. It is a hope they have lovingly tended like a delicate orchid for almost 20 years, a hope known to all parents whose children were snatched from them and never seen again.
The Morads are hoping that their three sons who disappeared into Hussein's prisons in the early 1980s are still alive. For a week and a half, they have been waiting for a telephone call, an e-mail, anything to indicate that, for all these years, they have not hoped in vain.
"When they said they found nobody in the jails," Hamid said, "we were disappointed."
While Hussein was in power, the Morads feared that he would take retribution on their sons if they raised a fuss about their disappearance. So the couple kept a low profile, quietly seeking information through U.S. officials and international human rights organizations.
But that fear has evaporated, and on April 12, the Morads felt liberated enough to put up a Web site about their missing sons.
The site -- www.moradbrothers.com -- shows the last photographs the couple have of their missing children. Samir was 24 and a radar technician in the Iraqi military when he was arrested in 1982. A year and a half later, Bahir, 22, who had just completed medical school at Baghdad University, and Namir, 19, a freshman at a technical college, were detained.
"We had to be silent for 20 years out of fear of the Iraqi government," said the couple's youngest son, Athir, 26, who will soon graduate from medical school at the University of Virginia. "Now that Iraq's been liberated, this is the time to announce what's been going on and get some ideas from the media or whoever can help about how we can search for them.
"It's like the weapons of mass destruction -- you still have to look for them," Athir added. "And if they're not there, we want to find out what happened, how they died. These are horrible things my parents don't even want to think about."
Untold Number of Missing
Televised images in recent days of Iraqis desperately searching police buildings, underground tunnels and even wells to find hidden prisons are vivid evidence that the Morads are not alone. Over the past 25 years, innumerable Iraqis have gone missing after being detained.
"We've been talking about 290,000 disappeared" in the last three decades, said Hanny Megally, director of the Middle East division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. But this is only an estimate, Megally said, based on incomplete information. Some human rights organizations in Iraq are putting the number above 300,000.
"Nobody knows how many disappeared people there are in Iraq," said Fareed Yasseen, a technology consultant and human rights advocate living in Cambridge, Mass., adding that every ethnic group in Iraq was targeted. "There are disappeared," he said, "from every single community in Iraq."
Yasseen is a founder of www.mafqud.org, a Web site on which Iraqis have listed the names of at least 10,500 missing relatives. Though other lists have been developed by such groups as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Mafqud.org is the most comprehensive online database of disappeared Iraqis, Yasseen said.
It is an outgrowth of a project launched by Yasseen and Falls Church resident Zuhair Humadi in the early 1990s, a time when it was unpopular in the Arab world to point out human right abuses by Hussein's government. With a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, they set up the Center for the Disappeared in northern Iraq to collect names of missing people, which they published in a newsletter. In 2000, Humadi said, they obtained a $150,000 U.S. State Department grant for a small staff to put the data online, and the Web site was launched in September 2002.
Mafqud means "missing" in Arabic. The site, available in English and Arabic, lists biographical details of missing people and the circumstances of their disappearance. Some have photographs. Yasseen said 2,000 more names are still to be entered into the database.
Modeled after human rights work for disappeared persons in Chile and Argentina, the initial idea behind the site was "to have a place where people could talk about the disappeared and get support," Yasseen said. Though many of the people listed may never be found, he added, "just seeing their name written somewhere helps their families. It serves as a virtual memorial to the disappeared."
Humadi, an educational consultant, said he and Yasseen intend to continue their work documenting the disappeared inside Iraq and open offices in several cities where most people went missing.
A Family Torn Apart
Athir Morad added the names of three of his brothers to Mafqud.org last week after putting up his family's Web site. He was only 6, he said in a recent interview, when his family was torn apart in the mid-1980s. Though his memories are hazy, he does remember feeling that something terribly wrong was going on.
Iraq was at war with Iran, and such families as the Morads, who are Shiite Muslim Kurds, a group also known as Faili Kurds, were being targeted by the Iraqi government, which suspected them of sympathizing with mostly Shiite Muslim Iran.
The family's turmoil began in late 1982 when Samir, the second-eldest son, was arrested. Months later, Hamid Morad, who worked in the customs department, was arrested and deported to Iran. At the time, the couple's eldest son, Munir, was studying in London, where he is now a university professor of geology.
In May 1984, police officers came to Athir Morad's primary school in Baghdad, took him out of his first-grade class and put him in the back of a police wagon, he recalled. His mother was sitting inside crying, surrounded by several suitcases. The police then picked up Athir's brothers Bahir and Namir.
They were taken to a large building in Baghdad. The sign outside said it was an electrical plant, but inside it was called a "deportation center," and it was filled with hundreds of other Faili Kurds.
After a month, all men of military age, including Athir's two brothers, were taken away on buses. "My brothers said, 'Take care of Mom,' " Athir recalled. "That was the last time I saw them."
Athir and his mother were then deported to Iran with a large group of old men, women and children, who were forced to walk for more than 12 hours across the border. In Iran, they eventually reunited with Athir's father, and in 1985, the three entered the United States as refugees.
Hamid got work as a Wells Fargo security guard; his youngest son graduated second in his class at Falls Church High School and then attended Georgetown University. "I've tried to turn a bad situation into something positive," Athir said. "Both for me and my parents."
Over the years, the Morads made several requests to the Iraqi government for information on their imprisoned sons. They were assisted at one point by the office of Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.).
"We raised the cases with the Iraqi government as a humanitarian issue," said Dorothy Taft, who was then Smith's legislative aide and is now chief of staff for the Helsinki Commission. "The Iraqis never gave me a clear answer and would say, 'We don't have any information.' "
In 1989, the Morads applied for refugee visas for their missing sons, listing their addresses as "unknown prison in Iraq." The visas, which were granted, are posted on the family's Web site.
Hamid Morad, 69, who is retired, calls his sons "hostages." The last time he and his wife got fresh news about them was nine years ago, when an Iraqi released from prison sent word that he had met Bahir and Namir in detention.
"I miss them for 21 years. It's unbelievable, like a dream," said Munira, 58, tears welling.
"This is the end of our film, our movie," Hamid said. "The end is we find our sons. After that, what happens to us, we don't care. We have hope they are alive."