Escape from ISIS: 'If Allah wishes for you to die this way, so let it be'

One Iraqi’s story of survival and escape from Islamic State.

ISIS base (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISIS base
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I left Tikrit on June 9, two days before Islamic State arrived.
I had traveled to Erbil for medical treatment; when I was a kid, a rock fell on my head and today, at the age of 25, I still sometimes get really painful headaches. That day, June 9, I decided to go to the hospital and get medication because my head was hurting more than ever.
After two days, I called my father to tell him I’d be coming back to Tikrit.
“No way!” he insisted. “Don’t you listen to the news? Islamic State is here!” I didn’t watch the news while I was in Erbil; I couldn’t understand what people were saying around me because it was all in Kurdish.
So I waited. I spent two months in Erbil until I heard that Iraqi forces, Shi’ite and Iranian militias, were planning to attack Tikrit. I already knew what they were going to do – random bombing, the same things that happened in Ramadi, Ambar and other places. I decided to go back, to help my family and try to retrieve some essential items from my home.
I approached Tikrit from an alternate route, because the direct route from Kirkuk was blocked.
I shared a taxi with a few guys; when we arrived close to the city, we were stopped at a checkpoint manned by Islamic State.
The man asked us where we came from, and why we were coming back. “Why did you leave Tikrit, and why do you now want to return? Are you police? Military? Do you work for the government?” He then demanded each of our IDs and went to check them on his computer – where they have top-secret information bought from the government: a list of members of the military, police officers and spies.
They discovered that one of the passengers was a police officer, or something similar; I don’t really know. Regardless, the Islamic State guard took the man by the shoulder and intoned, “Welcome, welcome, no one can escape the justice of Allah.”
He then took him to the side of the road and shot him.
We continued our trip. When we reached Tikrit, the first thing we did was cross a road full of mines. The driver asked one of the Islamic State guards what to do.
He replied, “You just need to trust in Allah and cross. If it is not your end, you will make it across. But if Allah wishes for you to die this way, so let it be.” I reached my home and spent four days there.
MY DAD was there; of my seven siblings, two younger sisters and my younger brother were at home. My older sister was also staying with our family, as her husband was serving in the Iraqi army.
I told my father and sisters to visit my aunt in a nearby village that was out of reach of Islamic State. I had some friends that were able to secure them safe passage; it was not easy, but it was also not dangerous.
My younger brother, however, wanted to stay because he had high school final examinations in Kirkuk, about two hours’ drive away.
I stayed with my brother and after a few days, sent him to Kirkuk while I stayed home in Tikrit.
My second day in Tikrit was when the bombing started. I woke up early and saw smoke in front of our door; I opened the door and that same moment, a bomb fell only a few meters away from me in the street.
In that moment I felt myself flying; the reaction of the explosion threw me back about 6 or 7 meters. I stood up, checked my body for any injuries, then started running to other nearby houses to check if anyone was hurt. Another round of bombing started. Jesus! This was not how life should be.
So I ran beside the walls. I reached a house where a friend of my younger brother and his father lived. Another man in the house told me to go to the back room, where it was safe.
I went inside for a minute and went right back out to see what was going on. Everything was destroyed. The funny thing was that I saw Islamic State fighters, the target of the bombs, just standing at a checkpoint near the houses. They didn’t move, they were there watching.
The bombs were falling on the houses instead of them! This happened more than one time.
TWO DAYS LATER, there was a knock on my door. An Islamic State member informed me, “In one hour we will behead a man working with the government. You will come to see the judgment of Allah, or you will join him.”
They brought everyone to al-Zohoor Street, a main square in Tikrit, and forced us all to watch the beheading.
This became the most tragic day of my life – the man they were executing was one of my best friends since the age of five. He didn’t work for the government; someone had lied and turned him in. He was one of the most precious people in my life. When they killed him, I died.
These people – Islamic State – are the enemy of humanity. No one in the entire world is doing anything to stop them – not the US, UK, UN, France, none of our so-called Arab brothers. No one is stopping these monsters.
The last image I have of my friend is his smile. He looked at me and grinned, and in his eyes, I could see pride, but also fear.
The next day, Islamic State came to my house and arrested me; they took to me an old palace that had belonged to Saddam Hussein that they were now using as their headquarters. They had arrested around 20 translators, people they suspected of aiding the US Army.
I had done some freelance translation; I never signed any contracts. American forces would usually visit the local college translation department to help the students practice their English conversation, and I did this to enrich my English skills.
Some of the people arrested were acquaintances of mine, but none were really close friends. Those against whom Islamic State had “proof” of collaboration with foreigners were beheaded; the rest were shot because they didn’t have actual proof in the form of pictures or videos.
I was the last person to be arrested. When I went in front of the judge, he gave me the same judgment as the others. My fate was to die.
As I was sitting in the holding room, a member of Islamic State walked by. When he saw me, he appeared shocked. He kept saying, “Are you... are you... are you...” over and over again, but couldn’t get the words out.
I said, “Who are you?” “For God’s sake! What are you doing here? What happened to you?” “Who are you?” I asked again.
“I cannot tell you who I am,” he responded. “You don’t know me, but I know you; I was with you in high school. I will try to get you out of here.”
And then he left. At that point, I was just waiting for people to come and take me away.
After a while, three men came, grabbed me by the hands and took me to sit in a side room. The smell of blood was so strong, I knew this must have been the same place they killed the other translators.
I became numb, I couldn’t feel anything, hear anything; my mind had gone to another place. I couldn’t focus on what was happening, because I couldn’t believe it.
The men in the room began reciting from the Koran, blaming me for being a translator and working with kuffar [US Army].
They put me on the ground, and one man held a sword over my head. He put his foot on my body so I couldn’t move. Another man held my legs.
Just as they were about to bring down the sword, I moved my body so they would hit my chest. They were trying to get a better grip on my body when I heard someone screaming, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and many other things I couldn’t catch.
It was the guy from my high school. He brought the executioners a piece of paper with the judge’s signature releasing me. This man had become my sponsor. I don’t know what he said or what he did, but he saved my life at the last moment.
MY NEWFOUND SPONSOR took me out of the building and told me to escape, to just run as fast as I could. I felt like I was drunk; I could barely move.
I managed to get my bearings and left Tikrit; I walked through the desert to Kirkuk. I walked and ran for seven hours; I knew this route had no houses and no roads. I arrived at the village of al-Dor, a place where I knew one of the tribes. I approached one family and asked them to help me; they gave me water, food, clothes and some money.
After a few hours, I left and walked along the highway. I saw a car approaching and recognized that it was a civilian vehicle because of the numbers on the license plate; Islamic State removes all numbers on plates.
I screamed and shouted trying to make the driver stop. When he finally stopped, I pleaded, “Please, just take me away from here, it doesn’t matter where.”
He dropped me at a junction and told me to wait there, as the nearby villagers frequently traveled this road. I did as he said and sure enough, some villagers came in a pickup truck carrying vegetables.
One of them stopped and I asked about the village of Yathreb; The driver agreed to take me there since it was on his way.
After two hours, I reached Yathreb and crossed the river to the other side, where my aunt lives; I then went to Aldojail, to another aunt, and spent a few weeks there.
My cousins informed me that Shi’ite militia members were looking for Sunni people as we were in a Shi’ite city. I was able to make it to Baghdad, and took a flight to Erbil.
And here I am.
The writer’s name is a pseudonym to protect his identity; his family remains safe as well.
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.