KIRKUK, Iraq // Sadiq Sabr’s friends and son leave a northern Iraq hospital without finding his body, the unused coffin they brought to hold it strapped to the roof of a white minibus.
Like so many others whose loved ones have gone missing in Iraq’s conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Mr Sabr’s friends have all but given up hope of finding him alive and want – if nothing else – to recover his body for proper burial.
Mr Sabr, a lorry driver, was kidnapped by militants from ISIL near the town of Suleiman Beg in Salaheddin province, north of Baghdad, which was retaken by security forces earlier this month.
He was seized on June 11, a day after ISIL overran the northern city of Mosul and then swept south through much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.
Mr Sabr was en route to Baghdad, followed by his friend Mohammed Hatem, when they heard shots.
They spent the night in a restaurant, and left at 5:30 am. It was then that the militants took Mr Sabr.
Mr Hatem tried to call his friend immediately after he was taken, but an unknown voice answered, saying: “This is the Islamic State [ISIL]. Your friend is a Shiite, we will kill him.”
By 5:45 am, the phone had been switched off, and for almost three months, there have been no signs that Mr Sabr is still alive.
When Mr Hatem heard that Suleiman Beg had been retaken, he travelled with Mr Sabr’s son Ahmed and other friends to attempt to recover his body.
So far, 35 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves discovered in the town.
The stench of rotting flesh permeates the air in Suleiman Beg.
The ground is stained with blood at a place near the entrance of the town, where a Kurdish officer says the militants carried out the killings.
Mr Hatem dug in Suleiman Beg in search of his friend’s body, but while his shovel struck pieces of bone and tissue, he found no trace of Mr Sabr.
The same was true at the hospital morgue in Kirkuk where recovered bodies were taken.
Dr Shakur Ibrahim, who runs the morgue, said the facility received about 18 bodies found in Suleiman Beg.
Families could search for their loved ones on a television screen at the morgue’s entrance, which displayed a grisly parade of broken bodies.
A piece of shirt, a football jersey, dirt-covered bones, a mobile phone – scant evidence with which to identify a missing person.
Their faces tense, Mr Hatem and Mr Ahmed scanned the images one after another, searching for a sign of Mr Sabr.
“We have no evidence that my father is among these people,” Mr Ahmed said.
Both men then left for Baghdad, the empty coffin on the roof, on a road that would take them past Suleiman Beg, which may still hold Mr Sabr’s body.
* Agence France-Presse