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 Islamic State (IS) jihadists, 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.
Sabr, a truck driver, was kidnapped by IS militants near the town of Sulaiman Bek in Salaheddin province, north of Baghdad, which was retaken by security forces earlier this month.
He was seized on June 11, a day after IS overran the northern city of Mosul and then swept south through much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.
Sabr was en route to Baghdad, followed by his friend and boss Mohammed Hatem, when they heard shots.
“We turned around and spent the night in a restaurant, then left at 5:30 am,” Hatem said.
It was then that the militants took Sabr.
Hatem tried to call his friend immediately after he was taken, but an unknown voice answered, saying: “This is the Islamic State. Your friend is a Shiite, we will kill him.”
By 5:45 am, the phone had been turned off for good, and for almost three months, there have been no signs that Sabr is still alive.
IS, a radical Sunni organisation, considers Shiite Muslims — who make up the majority of Iraq’s population — to be heretics, and frequently targets them in attacks.
When Hatem heard that Sulaiman Bek had been retaken, he travelled north along with 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, an officer and a doctor said.
The stench of rotted flesh permeates the air in Sulaiman Bek, where freshly churned earth and nearby shovels mark one of the grave sites.
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.
Hatem dug in Sulaiman Bek looking for his friend, but while his shovel struck pieces of bone and tissue, he found no trace of Sabr.
The same was true at the hospital in Kirkuk, a city to the north of Sulaiman Bek, where recovered bodies were taken.
Night had fallen by the time the minibus carrying the coffin intended for Sabr was able to reach Kirkuk, as the road is full of checkpoints manned by Kurdish fighters who only allow a trickle of Arabs to pass.
While bodies from the Sulaiman Bek graves are now in the hospital’s morgue, people were not immediately allowed in to see them.
The following morning, Hatem headed to the morgue with Ahmed, Sabr’s eldest son.
Dr Shakur Ibrahim, who runs the morgue, said the facility received some 18 bodies found in Sulaiman Bek, but that given their condition, the exact number is unclear.
“Some were killed by bullets, there were holes in their clothes,” he said, but the cause of death cannot be determined for all of the bodies due to the extensive decomposition.
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 — it was scant evidence with which to identify a missing person.
Their faces tense, Hatem and Ahmed scanned the images one after another, searching for a sign of Sabr.
“We have no evidence that my father is among these people,” Ahmed said in the hospital’s car park.
Hatem, Ahmed and his father’s other friends then left for Baghdad, the empty coffin on the roof, on a road that would take them past Sulaiman Bek, which may still hold Sabr’s body.
Hatem, who lost both his mother and his wife in a bombing three years ago and never found his wife’s body, said he was considering stopping, taking up a shovel and digging in search of his friend again.