Watch above: In a rare, eyewitness account of the ruthlessness of the Islamic State, an Iraqi soldier told the New York Times how he survived a mass execution of hundreds of men. Mike Armstrong reports.
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The “only known survivor” of one of the deadliest mass killings carried out by the Islamic State (IS) said he’s still alive because he pretended to be shot.
Ali Hussein Kadhim, a 23-year-old Iraqi soldier, was one of hundreds of Shiite Iraqi soldiers whom IS executed in Tikrit in mid-June.
He told the New York Times an IS militant stepped over him and said, “He’s an infidel Shia. Let him suffer. Let him bleed.”
IS, a Sunni Muslim militant group that is a disavowed offshoot of al-Qaeda, has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and killed thousands of people in both countries.
IS claims to have killed as many as 1,700 soldiers who were stationed at a former U.S. army base called Camp Speicher. The execution took place at Saladdin Al Ayubi Palace —the presidential palace under the rule of Saddam Hussein, whose hometown was Tikrit.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said the death toll from the Tikrit killings was “between 560 and 770 men.” Based on satellite imagery, the New York-based human rights watchdog determined there were five execution sites.
“It’s an improbable story,” Adam B. Ellick, a documentary producer with the New York Times, told Global News on Thursday. “Certainly, luck is on his side. … But, I think it also speaks to his survival instincts.”
The New York Times verified Kadhim’s story using the satellite imagery, witness stories, a Human Rights Watch and the videos of the executions IS posted online.
Watching a video taken the day of the mass killing, captured and posted online by IS militants, Kadhim showed the New York Times where he was lying amid lines of bodies in civilian clothing.
Kadhim, a poor farmer who is married with two children, told the New York Times he had only joined the army 10 days before IS invaded the city on June 11. Out of fear of being attacked, he said roughly 3,000 soldiers got out of their uniforms and left the base.
It wasn’t long before they ran into a group of IS militants.
“About 100 people approached us,” he said in the interview. “They said: ‘We’re not here for you. We’ll take you to your families. But they tricked us.'”
The soldiers were divided, piled into the back of trucks and taken away. Some of them died before making it to the firing line, the New York Times reported.
The video footage showed hundreds of soldiers being led en masse to where they would be killed.
Kadhim explained he was fourth in line to be killed and watch a man in front of him get shot in the head and got splattered with his blood.
He waited to be shot next, but he was never hit.
“I swear he fired. But, I don’t know where the bullet went. The guy on one side fell. The guy on the other side fell. There was blood on me. I fell too.”
It was in the dark hours of the next morning when Kadhim was able to flee the site and escape towards the Tigris River, his hands still tied behind his back.
He came across an injured man on the river bank, who cut his hands free. He spent three days with the man, identified as Abbas, before he made his way into the river and downstream and eventually to the home of a Sunni family.
“The family, worried about what might happen to them if ISIS found them sheltering a Shiite, drove him to the home of friends in another village, where he was kept safe for three more days,” the New York Times wrote.”
It was another two weeks before he was able to make his way to Erbil — the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region — where he was able to meet his uncle and then back home to the city of Diwaniya, in southern Iraq, to reunite with his wife and children.