It was a desperate and chilling scene in central Baghdad on Saturday, fathers and mothers holding up pictures of their missing sons, demanding answers and searching for their boys.
Some in the crowd were holding two photographs — two sons lost.
The gathering in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, was chaotic at times as many wanted their voices to be heard. But some mothers were too distraught to speak and wiped their tears as the 100-strong crowd chanted, “Where are our sons?”
“This is my son … this is my son … where is he? … where is my son?” one old woman screamed, pointing a young man in a picture released last year by ISIS.
It was difficult to speak with family members in Tahrir Square, because so many crowded in around at one time, trying to tell their stories, hoping we could help them get those stories out to the rest of the world and help bring back their sons.
These parents have become known in Iraq as “The Speicher families” — named after the Iraqi military base where their sons were last summer before ISIS captured them.
As the terror group swept through northern Iraq in June some military units were ordered to Camp Speicher, a fortified base near the city of Tikrit.
The events of June 12 remain a mystery, many questions unanswered about what happened on that day and how hundreds and perhaps more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers ended up in the hands of ISIS.
Their families claim the men received orders from their commanders to leave the base and move closer to Baghdad. They left unarmed and in civilian clothes, they say.
Military commanders and the Defense Ministry during an hours-long hearing in Parliament denied any such orders being issued and said the men deserted.
ISIS released videos that showed what seemed to be an endless line of military recruits marched at gunpoint and later posted images showing cold-blooded mass murders.
The group claimed to have executed 1,700 Shiite soldiers.
Human Rights Watch described the “Speicher Massacre” — as it has been dubbed in Iraq — as the “largest reported incident” where “ISIS captured more than 1,000 soldiers fleeing Camp Speicher… then summarily executed at least 800 of them.”
Based on Satellite imagery and witness testimony Human Rights Watch late last year was able to identity a number of mass grave sites inside Tikrit and Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace complex in the city.
Up until last month, Tikrit was under ISIS control, but Iraqi forces are now in control of the city, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday, following nearly a month of intense battles.
Capturing Tikrit may mean closure for hundreds of “Speicher families” who for nearly a year have been waiting for their sons. Many have been holding on to the hope that their boys might still be alive and held captive inside Tikrit. Iraqi government officials say they believe the recruits are dead, and they have promised the families a full investigation. But they agree, the answers most likely lie in Tikrit. Families gave DNA samples to the Ministry of Health last year so that authorities will be able to match them to unidentified bodies the government may find, a process that could take a long time one bodies are found.
‘I exist between life and death’
CNN has spoken to a number of families over the past year, the wait has been agonizing and it’s taken its toll; they do not know whether they should mourn or wait.
“God willing liberate Tikrit they will bring back those who are alive, if they are dead they will bring their bodies out … I will accept anything from God, just bring him back to us dead or alive,” said Umm Imad al-Jubouri.
The grief-stricken mother of three is barely able to speak; she cannot stop crying and her eyes are swollen.
“I exist between life and death, I cannot stay at home,” she said crying. “When I walk into the house and I see where he used to sit and see his clothes, I just cannot …”
Al-Jubouri and her husband Majed spend their days searching for their eldest son Imad. Majed quit his job last year and has traveled around Iraq, even to the Kurdistan region in the north to try and find the 21-year-old.
They have looked everywhere — prisons, morgues and ISIS videos online — but there has been no sign of their child.
We met the parents at a quiet Baghdad restaurant overlooking the Tigris. Umm Imad carried a plastic bag with two photographs of her son, as she pulled one to show us her boy, she burst out crying.
Imad, they said, signed up and joined a medical unit with the military as an assistant medic 10 days before he went missing. His mother says he left college for the military to get a paying job because he wanted to help his father, Majed, a truck driver. (Many young Iraqis join the security forces because it’s the top employer in the country).
“It has been 10 months and we know nothing about them. Are they are dead or alive? Are they feeding them? What conditions they are in? We went to the government and they did nothing for us. No one did. Why?” Al-Jubouri said in a trembling voice.
The frail and visibly anguished 55-year-old father ordered a plate of fruit at the restaurant, but could not eat.
“This is what happens, I feel like food, so we buy things at home,” he told us “but I just cannot eat it. How could I? I sit there and wonder has my son eaten today?”
Majed does not want the plight of these families to be forgotten so he says he has dedicated his time to campaigning. He rallies other families through a Facebook page he has set up to gather and protest. The families last year stormed parliament sessions and staged sit-ins outside the fortified Green Zone where the government is based.
Officials have promised them answers after an investigation is completed, but the families want more.
Like other families, Imad’s family want an international investigation, they say they want those responsible for the men’s capture to be held accountable. But more than anything they just want their sons back.
Holding up her son’s picture, Umm Imad ignored those around her and spoke directly to her boy, bringing his father to tears. “You didn’t live your life my son … you didn’t get married … not just you … all of you… why did you leave me Imad?” she said with tears streaming down her face.
“My darling son, why did you leave me? You are my everything. I told you don’t go … I hope God brings you back to us safely.”