By Mark Ellis
Due to a lack of economic opportunities, he joined the Iraqi military and reported to Camp Speicher, a former U.S. military base two hours north of Baghdad. Little did he know that only 12 days later he would be caught up in the ISIS tsunami sweeping northern Iraq and barely escape the mass execution of hundreds of his fellow soldiers.
Ali Hussein Kadhim, 23, a Shiite-background Iraqi soldier, was captured with about 1,700 other soldiers by ISIS fighters on June 12th and taken to the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces near Tikrit, according to a story in the New York Times.
The New York Times verified his dramatic story using witness accounts, a Human Rights Watch report and videos of the massacre.
When Ali and the other recruits heard ISIS was nearby, they panicked. “Our morale was very low,” he concedes. The American-trained army officers fled as they had in Mosul, Ali reports. “The recruits tried to flee, but it was too late.”
He and his fellow soldiers replaced their uniforms with civilian clothes and about 3,000 of them walked out the front gates of Camp Speicher.
It was a terrible decision because the camp never fell to ISIS. If Ali and his friends stayed at the camp they would have been safe.
They began to walk toward Baghdad, about 120 miles south. But only a few miles down the road, they ran into a group of about 50 ISIS fighters in armored vehicles, Ali told the New York Times.
“We’re not here for you,” one of the ISIS leaders shouted to them. “We’ll take you to your families,” the man said, but it was a deceptive ploy.
At gunpoint, the ISIS fighters separated them into groups of Shias and the Sunnis. The Sunnis were allowed to repent for their service to the government. The Shiites were marked for death and lined up in groups, according to the New York Times.
“No one could do anything. If you moved they killed you,” Ali recounts.
Hundreds of the Iraqi soldiers were thrown into trucks of the sort that carry animals to market. Some of the men underneath the “pile” of bodies suffocated.
A horrible massacre
Then Ali was led single-file in a long line toward a large pit, where the men were systematically machine-gunned to death. Others were taken along the Tigris River where they were shot in the head and thrown in the river.
Lying facedown in the pit, with men on either side, he squinted at a man on his left. “As I turned, I saw the guy shot in the head. The blood shot up.”
He also noticed a video camera in the hands of another fighter, carefully documenting their atrocity for intimidation and propaganda purposes.
Ali was fourth in the line. As he considered the end of his life, he thought about his young wife and two children. Who will care for them? he wondered. What will happen to them?
The executioner shot the first, second and third man to his left. “Then he came to me. I swear he fired, but I don’t know where the bullet went,” Ali told the New York Times.
Blood splattered his face from the man next to him, but inexplicably, he was unharmed. God had spared his life.
Ali played dead, with his eyes closed, his bloodied mouth open, and flies landing on his face. Then he opened his left eye slightly and saw the executioner’s boot.
Run for the river
His eyes closed again and soon it was dark. In the middle of the night, Ali opened his eyes and looked around. He didn’t see a guard nearby so he got up and made a 200-yard run for the Tigris River, his hands still tied behind his back.
Since ISIS controlled the west side of the river, he figured his only chance was to swim across to the east side. But how could he swim with his hands tied? He also noticed the swift current of the Tigris would carry him toward an ISIS checkpoint downstream.
Suddenly, Ali noticed a dark figure near the water’s edge, slightly obscured in the reeds. The dark figure rose up and began to move toward Ali.
It was a man named Abbas, a driver at Camp Speicher who had been shot by ISIS and pushed into the river. He was barely alive, with external and internal wounds. But he still had the strength to take a sharp-edged shell on the riverbank and use it to free Ali’s hands.
The two men hid along the riverbank for two days. Famished, Ali ate worms he dug up, but Abbas refused to eat.
At the end of the third day, about 11 p.m., Ali told Abbas he would try to escape by crossing the Tigris. “Go, God be with you,” he said, “but don’t forget me and let everyone know what happened here.”
After moving up river, Ali made three failed attempts before he successfully crossed. Ali quickly discovered the neighborhood on the other side was Sunni, the same sect as ISIS. Ali was afraid the Sunni residents would turn him in, according to the New York Times.
Along the road, he met an old man who offered him two tomatoes, a piece of bread, and a stern warning. “If you go that way they’ll kill you,” he said, as he pointed. “If you take the bridge they’ll kill you. If you stay they’ll kill you – you’re a dead man.”
As Ali walked along he wondered which door he should knock on. Alone and starving, he felt he had no other alternative than to beg one of the Sunni households for help.
By God’s grace, he knocked on the door of “an honorable” Sunni family, who invited him to stay with them – and to keep him hidden.
But after three days, someone reported him to ISIS. “On the third night they came searching for me in cars and motorcycles, but they didn’t know which house I was in,” he recounts.
In the morning, his host family concealed him in their car and took him to a neighboring town. From there, he went to the town of Al Alam and the home of a Sunni tribal sheikh, Khamis al-Jubouri, who had been helping Shiite soldiers escape from ISIS.
“We also helped 40 Iraqi soldiers from Anbar, Diyala, Mosul and Baghdad get home safely with fake IDs we made for them,” Sheikh Jubouri told the New York Times.
Ali stayed with the sheikh for nearly two weeks until it was safe to travel to Erbil, in the Kurdish region, a trip in which they passed through several ISIS checkpoints, Ali says.
In Erbil, he met his uncle, who helped him finally get home. “It was beyond happiness,” he relates. “They were crying, and I was laughing.”
His beard had grown out and he lost some weight. “My daughter didn’t recognize me and she ran away,” he
The scale of the massacre he survived — ISIS says it killed 1,700 Shiite soldiers — makes it the deadliest sectarian atrocity in Iraq’s recent history, according to the New York Times.
“For now, I am jobless,” he says, but thankful to be alive. “I’m just trying to take care of my orchard.”