An Iraqi soldier says he survived the mass execution of his comrades-in-arms by Islamic State gunmen by falling over when he heard a gunshot and pretending he was dead for hours amid the dozens of blood-soaked bodies around him.
The massacre, which took place in June, is gaining new attention now that Ali Hussein Kadhim, 23, a former Shiite soldier, emerged to give his firsthand account of the bloodbath to Human Rights Watch and the New York Times.
The Times posted a gripping videotaped interview of one of the few Iraqis to live and tell the story of an Islamic State rampage.
His eyewitness testimony is particularly important given the tight controls the Islamic State tries to exert over its messages conveyed overseas by intimidating or abducting journalists and filtering out its own images using social media. (Another rare eyewitness account emerged in June when Fadl Moussa Hassan escaped his Islamic State pursuers by crawling for a mile through wheat fields, then hiding in a pile of straw for eight hours after they had murdered and mutilated his son, brother, nephew and sister-in-law.)
According to Human Rights Watch, which continues to investigate the event, as many as 770 men were gunned down in five spots in Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, though the Islamic State group has placed the number at 1,700.
Kadhim, who joined the Iraqi army only 10 days before the massacre, tried along with his colleagues to flee their base, Camp Speicher, as Islamist militants neared. In order to avoid being identified, they shed their military uniforms and changed into civilian clothes as seen in images the Islamic State posted in June when the group boasted about the exploit.
Up the road from the military base, the men were met by about 50 Islamic State fighters in armored vehicles.
“They told us, ‘Don’t worry, we will take you to Baghdad,’ ” Kadhim told the New York Times. “They tried to make us feel safe.”
“They tricked us,” he said.
The British newspaper the Independent reported that Kadhim was held in a shipping container in the former palace of Saddam Hussein.
Kadhim corroborated the images that the Islamic State disseminated in June in which the militants could be seen loading the men onto trucks, forcing them to march bound together in lines, pushing them to their knees and then gunning down from behind.
When the firing squad shot the first three men in his line – Kadhim was fourth – blood splattered on him. When it was his turn, he heard the gunfire, but nothing hit him so he fell forward.
“I just pretended to be shot,” he said.
When one of the militants saw that one of the Iraqi soldiers was still breathing, another Islamic State fighter said, “Just let him suffer. … He’s an infidel Shia. Let him suffer. Let him bleed.”
The former soldier told the New York Times that the gunmen had separated the soldiers by sect, allowing the Sunnis to “repent” for their loyalty to the government while the Shiites were “marked for death.”
Kadhim continued to play dead for many hours and only risked fleeing after it grew dark. He hid in the reeds along the Tigris River for days, met a wounded survivor, and swam across the river battling currents until finding safety with sympathetic Sunnis who fed him then ultimately with a fake ID secretly navigated him back to his family.
Watch Kadhim’s gripping testimony of his horrific experience and dramatic escape courtesy of the New York Times. Read more about his story here.