BAGHDAD, Iraq—The boy said goodbye to his boss at a local upholstery shop, passed a violent anti-American demonstration on the way home and hasn't been seen since.
Mohamed Khaled Saleem's parents thought their 15-year-old son's disappearance six months ago was unique until their search led them this month to Abu Ghraib, the vast American-run prison where disturbing conditions existed well before graphic photos of soldiers abusing Iraqi inmates emerged.
American administrators have lost track of dozens of detainees inside Abu Ghraib in the past year, according to human-rights workers, former inmates, a former prison investigator, attorneys, detainees' families and prisoner-rights groups. With no clearinghouse for missing-person reports and technical errors in the intake process, families like Saleem's can do little but wait outside the tall prison gates in hopes that someone recognizes the missing men pictured on their flimsy, photocopied fliers.
"What else can they do?" asked Saad Abdulhadi al Ubaidy of the Iraqi Political Prisoners League, which has compiled hundreds of names of the missing. "They can hang around a human-rights office until they get kicked out. They can wait outside the prison or the coalition offices. But they'll still go home with no answers."
More than a million people are believed to be missing in Iraq, with the bulk having vanished under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, according to several humanitarian organizations. There's no way to tell how many have slipped into obscurity after being arrested by U.S. forces, said a coalition human-rights official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The whole system is desperately overloaded, so the names get gobbled up and disappear," the official said.
Recordkeeping at Abu Ghraib was sloppy and the prison was overcrowded before the abuse scandal brought long-overdue changes, former prison workers said. Many of the 3,200 detainees there can't be traced by relatives because of misspelled names or other simple data-entry errors. Others were given detainee numbers that weren't on file or were in use under another name. Some have escaped; a few have died in anonymity.
"I helped fix more than 50 cases myself," said Sabah Abid Saloome, a former Abu Ghraib corrections officer who's now a police investigator in Baghdad. "Even one digit or one letter off, and those prisoners are off the books. Without the fixes, their families would never find them."
Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for coalition detention operations, said there have been "occasional errors in names due to poor translation of Arabic into English or other human errors." The larger problem, he said, is detainees who give false names or aliases to hide their identities.
"We can only track them by the name we are given, unless we subsequently determine their true identity," Johnson said Wednesday in an e-mail response to questions. "There is certainly no effort being made to hide the identity of any detainees at Abu Ghraib or any other detention facility."
Human-rights workers and prisoner advocates recounted story after painful story of families who were incorrectly told their missing relatives weren't in the prison.
A Kurdish couple in northern Iraq gave up their search and held a funeral for a missing son. A few weeks later, he turned up on a busload of prisoners released from Abu Ghraib.
The wife of a high-ranking Baath Party member sold her bridal gold to finance the search for her husband and said she found out through back channels that he's behind bars under the wrong name.
Some relatives of the 22 prisoners who died in a massive mortar attack on their camp in April still don't know that the men are dead. Records of the men didn't include home addresses, said a human-rights manager with the coalition who was asked by prison officials to help track down the next-of-kin.
"While it was desirable to notify families personally, particularly given the tragic circumstances of the mortar attack where detainees were killed by fellow Iraqis, it was not possible to do so," Barry wrote, adding that the remains were turned over to Iraqi health officials.
By far, the most common story comes from families such as Saleem's. His name isn't on prison rolls. Yet no one can say for sure that he isn't in Abu Ghraib.
"This boy was by my side since the day he was born," said his father, Khaled Saleem. "Now he's gone and we know nothing. If he's been killed, then he's a martyr and we're honored. But if he is in Abu Ghraib, God help us."
People don't just vanish from Saleem's close-knit neighborhood of Adhemiya, where outsiders aren't welcome.
Saleem heeded his mother's warnings about steering clear of the guerrilla groups that have flourished in their Sunni Muslim district. Friends said the illiterate boy tried to avoid a violent clash between American soldiers and insurgents that erupted the night he disappeared.
By late evening, Saleem's parents hadn't heard from their son and grew frantic. After midnight, Saleem's father crept out of the house and headed to the demonstration site. Police told him the area was still dangerous, but Khaled Saleem searched alleyways and teahouses until dawn. American troops had arrested many young protesters during the violence, police told him. There were reports of five men killed in the fighting.
Nobody recalled seeing the boy in the red tracksuit with an easy grin and adolescent wisp of a mustache. Local merchants offered prayers and agreed to post photocopied pictures of Saleem in their shops.
During the past six months, Khaled Saleem has searched hospitals and police stations for his son. He gave up his job as a taxi driver because he thinks about Saleem so much he'd "probably cause an accident." He's visited local morgues so many times that workers there now keep a stack of photos of fresh corpses waiting for him.
Mona Mohammed, the boy's mother, has stopped sweeping her bare floors or dusting the mismatched furniture in the family's rundown second-floor apartment.
Her prayers for a break were answered in May, when the coalition started releasing prisoners following the abuse scandal. Several former detainees from Adhemiya flocked to Saleem's home and said they had seen the boy in prison. They said he was held under another name, Rafed.
Saleem's mother said opportunists in the neighborhood told her that her son was "crying in prison" and that they could help him escape for $500. They pointed out that some detainees abused by U.S. soldiers in the now-notorious photos from Abu Ghraib had been accused of raping a 15-year-old prisoner.
"Your son is 15, isn't he?" the men asked with sly looks.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Tom Miatke ushered Saleem's family into an air-conditioned cabin at Abu Ghraib on a sweltering day earlier this month. Miatke listened to the couple and leafed through letters of support from an Iraqi tribal council and Sunni Muslim political parties.
Khaled Saleem even had a handwritten note from a sympathetic American soldier, signed Sgt. 1st Class Robert Chapman: "Looking for his relative who disappeared. If you can check to see if he was arrested, it would be appreciated."
Miatke took notes about how other prisoners had told the family their son was listed under the wrong name. The soldier opened a detainee database and tried every possible spelling of Saleem's name. No results.
"Would you like 10 more families just like that?" he asked with a wry smile.
In the end, all Miatke could do for the parents was type up an informal missing-person report and send it by e-mail to U.S.-run hospitals and detention centers across Iraq. He's filed 12 missing-person reports in the past two weeks, he said. Only one man was located in prison. Because Saleem is 15, Miatke told the family, he may be easier to find.
The unofficial reports don't guarantee results, he continued, but the process was "something we just started because we had an overwhelming number of people looking for missing relatives."
The reports still aren't widely used. Barry, the prison spokesman, said the "detention centers don't receive missing person reports." If the detainee isn't located in the reception area, where a linguist is on hand to assist families, then the matter is left to Iraqi authorities.
Back in Adhemiya, the mood in Saleem's household has lightened since his parents filled out the semi-official missing-person report.
Saleem's parents believe that he will return any day now. They time their lives around prisoner releases to make sure someone is home just in case. They have his favorite Arabic pop music ready in a battered cassette player.
"I dreamed that he was in Abu Ghraib, and everyone laughed at me," Mona Mohammed said, holding a baby picture of her son. "If he's not out this week, it'll be the coming week. We're just waiting."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PRISONERS