29 Nov 2014

The man who survived an Islamic State massacre

Special Correspondent and Presenter

When the Islamic State captured hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in June, they were subjected to beatings, torture and execution. Only a handful escaped.

He is a man who survived a massacre. He lived to tell an extraordinary tale of horror, mass murder and a dramatic escape.

But there is a numbness about Thaher Abdel Kareem. He is calm, detailed, measured.

We take the odd pause in the interview. I sip my tea with a gulp, trying to take in the heaviness of the words he’s just articulated – torture, beatings, mass graves.

But Thaher stares ahead, appearing to look at nothing in particular in the room. There are images enough in his head. Memories of a massacre that continually haunt him.

‘We heard the beatings’

Thaher was one of hundreds of Iraqi Army soldiers captured by Islamic State (IS) militants as they made their first push across Iraq and overran the Iraqi army base of Camp Speicher, in June.

The IS militants would unleash unimaginable horrors. Thaher tells me how they were captured, bundled into trucks and then taken to be tortured.

He says: “They hit us on the head with a Kalshnikov, they hooked us by the back of our necks and forced us to say ‘the Islamic State is here to stay’.'”

He says after beating them all, IS then separated the Sunni soldiers. The majority Shi’a remained and began to realise that one by one, they were being led to their death.

The man who survived an Islamic State massacre

Throughout this time, the IS militants filmed their atrocities, documenting their war crime in an act of propaganda.

Thaher told me he remembers an “Afghan looking man” filming him while he was being beaten.

He says: “I was waiting for God’s mercy, there was another room next to ours. We couldn’t see it, but we could hear the beatings.

Campaigning for truth

“They took people in batches and tortured them. After 10 minutes, you could hear the shooting, and then the screaming stopped.”

Analysis from Human Rights Watch suggests at least 700 men were killed that day. These are the verified murders – the actual death toll may be higher.

Remarkably, Thaher and a handful of others managed to escape. He is now one of the few eyewitnesses of the horror that day and he is determined to tell every detail of his tale, in the hope that his story might be able to help piece together exactly what happened at Camp Speicher.

In the last few months, the families of those who were massacred have been protesting and campaigning for the truth about how these young men were led to their deaths.

Almost six months on form the massacre, we still don’t know the names of everyone who was murdered that day in June. And meanwhile the IS militants continue marching on with impunity.