Kuwaiti prisoners return to homeland 30 years after death

Kuwaitis watch as the coffins of nineteen Kuwaiti prisoners of war (POWs) whose remains were recently found in a mass grave in Iraq and identified following DNA tests, are carried by honour guards during a funeral procession at a cemetary in Kuwait City on November 21, 2021
6 min read
After Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991, hundreds of Kuwaitis were reported missing, many of them teenagers. Agonising years followed for Kuwaiti families searching for information on their children's fates.

Fahd al-Anzi can't stop crying as he tells the story of his uncle Naif al-Anzi, who disappeared in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion in 1990, while on his way to visit a friend. It would later become clear that Naif had been a member of the Kuwaiti popular resistance against the Iraqi army.

Al-Anzi remembers the close and affectionate relationship between him and his uncle before his disappearance. He was only eight years old when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and his uncle was 17.

Existence of Kuwait's missing denied under Saddam

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kuwaiti government revealed that it had retrieved the remains of Kuwaiti prisoners who had been among the country's 'missing', from Iraq.  The former Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein had denied the existence of these prisoners. Fahd al-Anzi's family received the remains of Naif's body and were able to give it a proper burial in his homeland.

"So far, 293 bodies of Kuwaiti prisoners have been identified by the Kuwaiti government and returned to Kuwait. This is out of a total of 605 Kuwaitis who are registered as having disappeared"

So far, 293 bodies of Kuwaiti prisoners have been identified by the Kuwaiti government and returned to Kuwait. This is out of a total of 605 Kuwaitis who are registered as having disappeared. The recovery process has been facilitated through the cooperation of successive Iraqi governments, which discovered, at intervals, mass graves left behind by the Saddam regime in scattered locations across the country.

Missing prisoners a burning issue since the '90s

The question of Kuwait's missing prisoners still casts its long shadow over Kuwaiti society. In 1991, Iraq released prisoners whose names were listed in the International Red Cross registers. However, the fates of some of those kidnapped during the last days of the war - most of whom were teenagers – are still unknown to this day.

Their whereabouts were never announced, and the Saddam regime never acknowledged their existence. This caused the question of the prisoners to become a national issue that went on to dominate political and social discussions in the country from the 1990s onwards.

Kuwaiti prisoners return to homeland 30 years after death
Mourners carry the coffins of nineteen Kuwaiti prisoners of war whose remains were recently found in a mass grave in Iraq and identified following DNA tests [AFP via Getty Images]

The families of many missing prisoners later discovered that their remains had been identified. Hassan Yaqoub is the cousin of a missing Kuwaiti prisoner. He says that his cousin's parents lived in hope that he would come back. This hope was stirred by recurring rumours, following the US invasion in 2003, that Kuwaiti prisoners had been found alive in Iraqi prisons. These rumours affected them deeply, and they were always looking for ways to trace their son's whereabouts.

Yaqoub adds: "When you have a missing son who was snatched from the street, and someone comes to you and says he has seen him alive, in a prison somewhere, you will start to have a glimmer of hope, and you will try to keep hold of this. This is exactly what happened in the case of my cousin. In the end, his family didn't believe he was dead until the Kuwaiti government announced it had matched his DNA to the remains in one of the mass graves in Iraq".

Unscrupulous journalism

Al-Anzi states that the issue of the missing prisoners saw a lot of manipulation by the Kuwaiti press after the fall of the former Iraqi regime, especially certain self-serving reporters he says sought to build reputations for themselves. At this time, many Kuwaitis travelled to Iraq saying they were searching for the prisoners, and then returned claiming to have information on people's whereabouts. Some of them would even demand payment for information on the alleged location of the prisoners.

"All those who have actively been involved in the search for the missing prisoners are convinced that they were killed by individuals and commanders of the Iraqi army in 1991, as a form of revenge after the international coalition forces entered Kuwait"

However, according to al-Anzi: "All those who have actively been involved in the search for the missing prisoners are convinced that they were killed by individuals and commanders of the Iraqi army in 1991, as a form of revenge after the international coalition forces entered Kuwait, and the country was liberated from the Iraqi invasion".

Official efforts

Kuwait began formally requesting the recovery of prisoners and missing persons in 1992 through a series of measures. It established the National Committee for the Missing and Prisoners of War under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through which it tried to organise the search operation.

It opened channels of communication with the former Iraqi regime and used Arab and international connections to trace the prisoners and arrange for their return to Kuwait. Around the same time, the National Assembly of Kuwait established a parliamentary committee to investigate the issue. Later, families of the missing set up a public benefit organisation called The Association for the Search for the Prisoners and Missing.

Analysis
Live Story

More recently, in 2003, the Kuwaiti authorities set up a team, which was given a hefty budget and tasked solely with tracing the prisoners and returning them, or their remains, to the country.

The National Committee for the Missing and Prisoners of War explained in a statement how they identify the remains, confirming that bodies found which may belong to Kuwaiti prisoners are transported from Iraq to Kuwait. The Ministry of the Interior's Department of Criminal Evidence then runs the identification process using DNA analysis and identifies the remains of Kuwaiti prisoners from them, before announcing their names and informing their families.

It is an arduous process requiring advanced technology and expertise especially due to the state of these remains after long years of having been buried in mass graves in Iraq.

Although 31 years have passed since Kuwait's invasion by Iraq, the issue of the prisoners still weighs heavily on the hearts of the Kuwaiti people, especially the families of the disappeared. Even for those whose children's remains have been recovered, this in many cases simply spurs the families into a further agonising search into the circumstances of their deaths.

As for those whose relative's remains are yet to be discovered, some continue the search for information on their fates, while others desperately cling to the hope that they will be found alive. This, despite that the Kuwaiti government has stated to the families that they are certain that none of the prisoners are still alive, according to classified information.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko