BAGHDAD, Iraq—The suffering for the women of Saad Abdullah's family only began when the doting father and bookish naval engineer went missing.
First came the brutish calls from his kidnappers—men cagy enough to coax more than $50,000 from the family, and killers cold enough to not so much as hint at what had become of his body.
What followed was a heart-gnawing quest by the women in Abdullah's life as they searched for his body through the country's maddening death bureaucracy. The hunt would last months and end in a mystery only half-solved. The men couldn't help—any who showed his face would have risked all but certain death as a tempting target in Iraq's sectarian chaos.
The family's story shows how Baghdad's unrelenting violence has turned Iraq's traditions on their head. Once a masculine obligation, retrieving a body has become a woman's burden that requires a strong stomach, a bull-headed resolve and no small amount of luck.
"A man who acts like a man will be cut down," said Ahlam Abdullah, his sister. "As a society we've put the men aside to keep them safe, despite their shame and embarrassment."
It also illustrates a haphazard system of tracking the dead that experts say all but ensures that militia leaders and insurgent organizers will never be held accountable for the thousands of tortured and disfigured bodies dumped on Baghdad's streets. Few records exist of where or when bodies were found.
With killings so rampant, "you're not going to be seeing one person prosecuted for just one person's murder," conceded Robert Lamburne, the director of forensic services for the British Embassy in Baghdad and an adviser to the Iraqis.
But without serious efforts to collect information about torture methods and assassination techniques, there also will be no way in the future to prosecute militia leaders or insurgent organizers for mass killings.
"At some point it becomes a human rights issue," Lamburne said. At least, he said, the government should take fingerprints from the dead. Americans have given Iraqis the technology to catalog that data, he said.
Saad Abdullah disappeared as he was making a simple run to the market. Witnesses told the family that a car stopped in front of his at a traffic circle, four gunmen jumped out, pulled him from his car and tossed him in theirs.
Around noon his wife's cell phone chirped. Its screen showed an unfamiliar caller. Is this the mother of Muhassad? We have the father of Muhassad. Adults in Iraq are often referred to by the names of their children. Referring to Saad that way was claiming a chilling intimacy. They demanded $100,000 by nightfall.
Eventually, they agreed to slightly more than half that amount, which they snatched from Abdullah's wife's hands through the window of a passing car. The family never heard from them again.
Days passed. The family searched fruitlessly in both the neighborhood where he'd been kidnapped and the impoverished area where the ransom had been snagged. They checked one hospital morgue after the next—15 in all—hoping to find him.
No luck. The morgue workers were overwhelmed by the flood of anonymous bodies. They'd grown numb to a family's despair. "No one wanted to answer questions," Ahlam Abdullah said. "They said `just keep looking.'"
On the fifth day, Abdullah's family gathered to talk. "Everyone knew the next step," she said. "No one was willing to say it."
Head to Baghdad's central morgue, the overflowing facility where hospitals unload bodies that aren't retrieved quickly enough by families. Designed for a pre-war time when it might have seven bodies in storage waiting for identification, the morgue is now an unrelenting scene of horror. Most days it holds 100 bodies or more. Refrigerated truck trailers hold the overflow—and bake like ovens when the power inevitably goes out. Some families pay freelancers to find bodies at the morgue.
"Most of the bodies are never identified, and buried that way," said a morgue worker who agreed to be interviewed only if his name was withheld.
When Saad Abdullah's wife and sister showed up, workers said the electricity was out, so they needed to come later. They heard the same story the next day, and the next.
So the two women headed to a police station, where some 20 other women in the same bind were competing for the attention of a desk sergeant. Only after Abdullah's widow fell to the ground sobbing did the officer let her look at photographs of anonymous dead who'd been found recently.
The fourth photo was of a man gagged and blindfolded with his arms above his head. The women decidedly instantly it was Saad. The cops gave the women an identification number to match the body. But police claimed they had no paperwork with clues to the cause of death, where his body had been found or when.
Lamburne, the British forensic expert, said that such identifications are notoriously suspect.
"You might have a blindfold, blood all over the place, and a traumatized family that desperately wants to find the person they're looking for," he said. "I'm sure that sometimes people are just claiming a body because they want to believe they've found the right one."
Armed with the identification number, Saad Abdullah's wife and sister went back to the central morgue for another two power-free days until they finally were allowed in. Urging each other on, steadfast in prayer, they walked in and found a maze of horrors.
"There were bodies on patios, courtyards, in rooms to our right and to our left," Ahlam Abdullah said. With refrigeration spotty, they walked among the dead on floors slick in body fluids.
None was the body they were looking for. Morgue workers suggested asking some of the undertakers who bury the unclaimed.
Outside stood a group of men joking with one another. As women, they were reluctant to approach them. But they mustered the courage.
They coaxed a series of men to check their records for the number matching the photograph they'd identified. The men would pull laptops from their cars, look and offer their regrets. Time and again the women returned, looking for another burial man who might check his records.
It wasn't until April, more than four months after the kidnapping, that they found the right undertaker. He had a match. Saad Abdullah, the man said, was in a grave a three-hour drive south—on ground between Najaf and Karbala considered sacred by Shiites.
So the women drove themselves—again, it was too dangerous a trek for men—to a graveyard for the unknown. Tombstones stretched to the horizon, nearly all identified by no more than a number.
"What a sight. There were graves upon graves," said Ahlam Abdullah. "Thousands and thousands of graves of unidentified bodies. I thought to myself, how many families are missing their loved ones. How many are missing people who were abducted or just went missing. All these people who never returned."
They found a name that matched their number—the digits that traced through Iraq's busted system of death accountancy to the man in the photo with the blindfold and gag. The grave marker bore a Quran verse and a number.
For slightly more than $100, promised a graveyard attendant, Saad Abdullah's name could replace the number.
"Is there no government agency, no formal department, no coroner's office who can at least make this process more humane?" Ahlam Abdullah wondered. "Isn't it enough that our loved ones are being killed like this? For every grave we saw, there is a family that has been broken down. For every grave we saw, mothers and sisters and daughters weep."
(Canon reports for The Kansas City Star. Issa is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.