Ali Hussein Kadhim was a baby-faced recruit when he joined the Iraqi forces in the spring of 2014, leaving his wife and two children at home.
On June 12, 2014, ISIS militants captured him and thousands of other Iraqi soldiers and brought them to a military camp in northern Iraq. As far as he knows, he is the only survivor of the group he was in, in what became known as the Camp Speicher massacre, one of ISIS’ worst mass atrocities.
Testimonies like Kadhim’s are being collected by a UN group charged with documenting and investigating the massacre and other ISIS crimes. It’s an enormous, slow-moving endeavor, and more recently, the investigators have had to work around a new hurdle — the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of visiting sources in person, they introduced an app that survivors and families of victims can use to submit evidence, according to Karim Ahmad Khan, who heads the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD).
“So, whether they’re in Iraq, whether they’re in Australia, whether they’re in Germany or elsewhere, that will allow those witnesses to give us their details, to tell us briefly what happened to them, to upload any photographs or any information they may have seized as they fled or were released from their locations,” he said.
Khan’s team has also met with survivors and relatives of victims of ISIS’ crimes. The investigators document their stories and collect photos, videos or any other evidence that could help bring those responsible to justice in courts.
ISIS may not be in the headlines in the West every day, but the atrocities it committed are fresh in the minds of those who lived through them — which is what helps Khan and the rest of the group keep pushing forward.
“It's tough but what gives us pause for thought is the humbling courage of those survivors who have suffered on a scale that none of us could dream in our worst nightmares and yet they wake up every day with a belief that they can live and move forward.”
Many ISIS fighters have died on the battlefield, but others are in prisons in Iraq and Syria.
“We [told] the other communities that ‘you’re not forgotten. There is no hierarchy of victims. Please bear with us as we start to get additional staff.’”
“We [told] the other communities that ‘you’re not forgotten. There is no hierarchy of victims. Please bear with us as we start to get additional staff,’” Khan said.
Khan said his team has already helped feed evidence for cases in courts in Europe and Iraq.
“So, the work is going well but it must be viewed relative to the amount of criminality that confronts us in relation to Daesh,” he said.
In 2017, the Iraqi government asked the international community to help document and investigate crimes of ISIS, or Daesh, as it’s known in Arabic. The UN Security Council passed a resolution to set up UNITAD.
Khan said that his group initially faced the daunting task of deciding which crimes to pursue.
“The crimes of Daesh are so widespread, there’s no community that refused to bow its head to Daesh that was let off,” he said. “They were targeted, and they suffered enormously.”
For example, there are more than 200 mass graves that have been discovered in former ISIS areas. The UN team decided that one of the areas it was going to investigate was the Tikrit Air Cadet Academy, or Camp Speicher.
US forces had captured the camp after the 2003 invasion and renamed it after Michael Scott Speicher, an American Navy pilot who died in the Gulf War in the 1990s.
In 2014, the Iraqi military used the camp for training cadets. Kadhim, in an interview with The World, speaking from his home in Diwaniyah, a city about 120 miles south of Baghdad, described the dreadful events that took place at Camp Speicher.
He said on June 12, 2014, he and the other Iraqi soldiers were divided into smaller groups, their hands tied behind their backs and loaded onto trucks. Then, they took them to the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit and ordered them to lie down next to each other.
“We were there from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. under the scorching sun,” he said. “We were thirsty. When we asked for water, they beat us.”
“Then, they started to execute us.”
Kadhim thought of his wife and two children.
“We were crying, we were shouting, but nothing affected them,” he said.
But Kadhim was lucky that day. He said bullets whizzed right by his head and missed.
“When I felt there is no bullet in my head or my body, I [realized] I will live.”
“When I felt there is no bullet in my head or my body, I [realized] I will live,” he recalled.
After the sun went down, he got up and escaped on foot. As far as he knows, he said, he is the only survivor of the group.
The UN said the group captured and murdered at least 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. It dumped their bodies in mass graves in various locations, including the Tigris River. ISIS published photos and videos of the Camp Speicher massacre online as part of its propaganda.
In 2016, the Iraqi government hanged 36 ISIS members convicted of taking part in the massacre.
Khan, who has worked on cases connected to other mass atrocities, said it will take time to fully investigate these crimes, “but the course of gathering evidence that withstands challenge, that withstands scrutiny creates a record that stands the test of time.”
Meanwhile, Kadhim, who now works for a religious organization in Iraq — and struggles to make ends meet — wants to see those responsible for killing Iraqi soldiers brought to justice. He said he believes they should face the death penalty in public.