‘They Made Us Take the Seat of Death’

Meet a man executed by the Islamic State -- who survived.

Lauren Bohn for FP
Lauren Bohn for FP

DOHUK, Iraq — One sunny day this summer, 17-year-old Khidir lay on the ground and pretended to be dead for what seemed like an eternity.

On Aug. 15, masked Islamic State (IS) militants stormed into his village, Kocho, about 15 miles southwest of the town of Sinjar, ordering hundreds to gather in the village’s only school. There they took everyone’s mobile phones and valuable possessions — wedding rings, money, life savings, all gone in a flash. They told the villagers not to worry, that they would simply drive them all to Mount Sinjar to be with their fellow Yazidi people, who practice an ancient religion considered heretical to the Islamic extremists.

"We had heard they might come to the village, but we didn’t actually believe they would," says Khidir, his hands brushing against a dirty white bandage on his neck.

They told Khidir he’d be among the first group of men to leave. A wave of relief washed over him. "I thought that maybe they weren’t so evil as we had thought," he recalls. 

He and 20 or so other men piled into a white Kia truck, unnerved to be separated from their families but hopeful about reaching the mountain, where thousands of Yazidis had fled from the Islamic State’s advance. About 10 minutes later, the truck stopped in the middle of a field, where two other men were waiting with machine guns. Khidir suddenly realized they weren’t going to the mountain after all.

"They made us take the seat of death," he says. He’ll never forget the eyes of one of the executioners, the only part of his face not obscured by black cloth; he looked as if he was smiling. All the men were blindfolded and forced on their knees. "’This is the end,’ they told us," Khidir recalls. "Then boom."

He heard shots, and one by one, the other men dropped to the ground, some screaming and wailing. "I thought it was all over," says Khidir.

He felt a blistering hot prick on his neck and fell to the ground. The bullet narrowly missed him, grazing his neck. He pretended to be dead until the men got back into the truck and left. Two hours or so later, Khidir stood up to find all the other men dead, including his cousin, except for one of his neighbors with an injured leg.

"We only had one choice," he says. "We had to escape."

So they walked for hours until they reached a neighboring Sunni Arab village where they were only given water and told to leave. 

"I could tell they wanted to help us," says Khidir. "But no one trusts anyone in this country anymore."

Khidir and his wounded neighbor walked several hours and finally reached the mountain where Syrian Kurdish fighters took them over the border to Syria. They stayed for two nights. A day later, Khidir hitched a ride to the city of Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where his sister and brother-in-law had been staying since early August, fearful of an IS advance on their town. Khidir had initially chided them for being overly cautious, but now he says he’d do anything to turn back time and force his whole family to leave with them.

Khidir, his sister, and brother-in-law now live in Khanke refugee camp, the newest camp for internally displaced people in Iraq. The family shares a small tent with a dirt floor and a few rugged cushions, worlds away from the open space they used to farm in Kocho. Iraq’s Kurdistan region is now hosting more than 850,000 displaced people

The fate of his four brothers and father is unknown, but Khidir says he’s accepted that they’re dead. His oldest brother had recently graduated from the University of Mosul — the first in his family to receive higher education. They all had hopes that he’d do great things.

"He was going to be someone important," says Khidir’s sister Hadeela.

Until three weeks ago, they believed their five sisters and mother were also dead. But one morning, they received a frantic call from their 19-year-old sister, Badeaa, who was also living in Kocho.

"It was the best and worst call," says Hadeela. "It first brought us hope, but then so much more fear."

Badeaa told them what they had feared more than their deaths: She and her sisters, along with their mother, are being held by the Islamic State in a building in Tal Afar, another IS-controlled town, along with 40 other women from the village. One of them had managed to sneak in a mobile phone.

Speaking in a hushed, fearful tone, Badeaa told them they’re okay for now, but have no idea when and if they’ll be released. She then pressed them to tell her the fate of her other brothers and their father, but they refused.

"The last thing she said was, ‘Don’t call this number, they’ll kill us,’" Hadeela’s husband says. "And then she hung up." 

They’ve heard from her a couple times since, but only in hurried 10-second intervals that bring more questions than answers.

Since the Islamic State stormed into Kocho, the jihadi group has suffered some notable defeats. U.S. airstrikes and the combined power of Kurdish and Iraqi government troops were able to lift the siege on Mount Sinjar, averting a humanitarian crisis, and also to retake the strategic Mosul Dam. However, IS still controls much of the territory that it seized during that August offensive — including the town Khidir once called home.

The 17-year-old boy, now sullen and traumatized, speaks of their village longingly — the patch of tomatoes he grew himself, the living room where he played cards with his older brother, the kitchen where his mother made them tea every morning. But he refuses to ever go back.

"Everyone is dead," Khidir says. "There is no village."

Lauren Bohn is a multimedia journalist based in Istanbul and co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, an initiative dedicated to amplifying female voices in foreign policy. She's the founding assistant editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt, where she was a Fulbright fellow and Pulitzer Center grantee. Twitter: @LaurenBohn