Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Survivor Recounts Iraqi Prison Massacre

Islamic State members slaughtered hundreds of Shia inmates after overrunning Mosul jail.
By Tahsin al-Zergani

A survivor of the massacre of hundreds of prisoners in Mosul by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in June has told IWPR he could find the site again.

After news of the mass execution broke in the media, Mohammed Ali Mohammed, 41, received many phone calls from the families of victims. He told them what he could about their loved ones’ fate, and now says he is keen to contribute to an investigation of the atrocity.

“I know the place of the massacre and I am ready to cooperate with anyone who is interested in genocide issues,” he told IWPR.

This summer, Mohammed was in the Badush prison in the northern Nineveh province, serving a five-year sentence for smuggling antiquities.

On June 10, ISIS fighters captured the prison and brought out the inmates. Mohammed estimates that there were more than 1,500 prisoners.

Mohammed and the other convicts were ushered out of the jail into a nearby open area, from where they were loaded on to trucks and driven to a nearby valley.

An ISIS leader began addressing them politely, assuring them that his men were going to “save them from the oppression of [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki’s sectarian government”.

“For a moment, it all seemed good,” Mohammed said. “The speech of the ISIS guy, who was called Hajji and wore jeans, seemed very nice, because he didn’t look like an extremist.”

The situation quickly changed when the insurgents started separating Shia prisoners from Sunni ones. At this point, fear began to spread among the convicts. Mohammed, a Shia Muslim, said the ISIS commander was surprised to find that most of the prisoners were Sunni.

“He told us the purpose of separating us was to give weapons to the Sunni guys so they could fight alongside them,” Mohammed said.

The militants took all the Shia prisoners to an isolated area and started counting them.

Mohammed recalls that they reached a figure of 503, with him number 463 on the list. United Nations High Commissioner Navi Pillay said in late August that her investigations indicated that up to 670 Shia detainees were killed.

The ISIS men’s demeanour changed completely and they began insulting and humiliating the Shia prisoners.

“We knew they’d decided to kill us and had chosen this place as our graveyard,” Mohammed said.

The insurgents told their captives to line up along the banks of a dried-up riverbed, which was about three metres deep and overgrown with reeds.

They started abusing them again, calling them “dogs” and “rafidha” (“rejecters”), a pejorative term for Shia Muslims.

Mohammed was holding a copy of the Koran and tried to hold it over his head. The militant guarding him said he could do so but warned him not to turn around.

“I told the guy that I knew he would kill us, but that I needed some water to drink – that was my last request,” Mohammed said.

The ISIS fighter cursed him, calling him a sheep. Mohammed replied that even a sheep was allowed to drink water before being slaughtered; but the militant responded that sheep were worth more than Shia.

The ISIS unit commander ordered his men to make ready and then shouted, “God is great!” Shots rang out and the prisoners started falling into the riverbed.

“I tried not to let go of the Koran. When I fell, my glasses broke. I felt something heavy fall over my body and I could feel the heat of blood,” Mohammed said.

After five minutes, the shooting stopped and Mohammed heard a command for the ISIS gunmen to stand by the edge of the riverbed and fire down at the bodies. Then some were told to climb down into the riverbed and shoot any survivors in the head with pistols.

Mohammed bit down on a stone to prevent himself crying out, and the dead bodies piled over him saved his life. Before leaving the scene, the insurgents set fire to the corpses.

He could smell burning flesh, but remained silent until another survivor who was dying of his wounds told him the insurgents had gone.

Having lost one of his shoes in the ditch, he was forced to take shoes off a dead body before he was able to start moving away from the massacre site.

After more than an hour, Mohammed heard a voice and, fearing the insurgents were near, hid in a large storm drain in the road. However, the voice belonged to another survivor called Ali, who told him that two more inmates had escaped. They discovered later that both those men subsequently died of their injuries.

“We decided to hide until nightfall. I was so thirsty, and I told my friend to stand near the main road and hopefully someone would come along and help us,” Mohammed said.

Eventually, an old man driving a pickup truck stopped and gave them some water, advising them to leave the road and follow a track towards the Badush dam.

Exhausted, Mohammed told his friend he could go no further and told him to leave there. But Ali refused, saying, “We either live together or die together.”

After walking for another 90 minutes, the two men saw an car approaching, with a male driver and a woman sitting in the passenger seat.

“I threw myself in front of the car and held up the Koran. Before I even began to speak, the driver told us to get into the car quickly,” Mohammed said.

The driver turned out to be fleeing the fighting himself, and told the fugitives he would take them to a small village where they would find refuge.

In the village, an elderly woman gave the men water and took them to her the home of her brother, who invited them to wash and change their clothes.

Early the next morning, their host called a representative of the prominent local Obeid tribe, who took the two men under his protection and helped them contact their families.

For the next 18 days, Mohammed and his friend were moved from place to place to keep them safe, until they were taken to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The security forces refused to allow them to enter the city as they had no ID, so their guide changed direction and took them on a rural route to Baghdad.

Once in the Iraqi capital, Mohammed went to a friend’s house before his brother collected him and took him to Diwaniyah northeast of Baghdad, where he went to prison to serve the one month left on his sentence.

Now free again, Mohammed believes the Iraqi authorities are ignoring the massacre, as if it had happened abroad. He has been to court to seek legal action against Iraq’s justice minister, who he argues had a duty of care to the inmates of the Badush prison. 

Tahsin al-Zergani is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.