Not Heroes, But Monsters!
Translated from German by: Hayat Qae’d
A photographer accompanied members of a special unit to their fight against IS (the “Islamic State”) to document it, and suddenly, he became a witness of rape, torture and targeted killings.
Torture Allegations Against Iraqi Special Forces
Ali Arkady, an Iraqi photographer and documentary filmmaker who is well informed of what has been happening in his home country since 2006, is not only an excellent photographer, but also his many contacts in the country (as well as numerous documentations) gave him an unusually deep insights into the various conflicts of Iraq.
He has worked with Der SPIEGEl since 2011, and the scenes of torture, rape and targeted killings committed by the Iraqi security forces that Arkady meticulously photographed and filmed last year over a period of months, have confirmed similar observations from human rights organizations, statements of witnesses, as well as what SPIEGEL has already reported about the Iraqi security forces arbitrary arresting civilians, torturing, and killing them.
In May, last year, SPIEGEL reporter, Arkady, went for a search in the city of Toozkhurmatu, south of Kirkuk, in the footsteps of a forced eviction and murder campaign of the Shiite militias. Consistent witnesses told him of kidnapped family members. Already at that time, it was said that up to a thousand Sunnis, from are alone from Toozkhurmatu alone, had disappeared. The ones who fled from other provinces of Iraq confirmed the abduction, but there had been a lack of evidence beyond the witnesses and the places abandoned.
However, Ali Arkady has now delivered, by the authenticity of his material, the identity of the offenders with no doubt. His descriptions are in contrast to the conventional reporting about the campaign for the liberation of Mosul. Many reporters had the Iraqi army units previously seen as liberators. Maybe because they simply did not see; could not see what happened outside the city?
The Emergency Response Division (ERD), a military unit of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior who displaced their victims not only from Mosul urban areas, but also from the villages of the surroundings, always at night, when no journalists are present. Ali Arkady accompanied the Emergency Response Division (ERD) force, and wrote this report below.
I come from Khanaqin, a small town in the north-east of Iraq, where the Kurdish and the Arab parts meet. For us, it was always normal that Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds and Arabs live together. Perhaps that is why I have believed more than others that Iraqis of different origins can live together in the future.
In October of the last year, I started my project in order to accompany two members of the Emergency Response Division (ERD). I wanted to document the fight against the “Islamic state” (IS) . This, at least, was the plan.
I was acquainted of other two members of this unit who participated in the liberation of Fallujah City. They have already told me then that they would kill the people, but I thought they were just making jokes.
In autumn, when the operations of the Mosul Liberation began, I joined Captain Omar Nazar, a Sunni, and Sergeant Haider Ali, a Shiite. That is the common cliché opponents, but these two were “buddies”, closest friends that are protected on the battlefield. I accompanied them and filmed for days. Having these two “protagonists” in the documentary is because the film was supposed to show that Sunni and Shia of Iraq are both in the fight against the “Islamic State”.
So, I got a Facebook page set up. It was called Happy Baghdad. I posted a two-minute video of these two men under the title “Liberators, not Destroyers”. The responses were overwhelming, and the video had 345 815 views, a big number of comments, and the page was shared 1360 times. I am on the right path, I thought.
I previously thought that I would follow these two up to the end of this war for the liberation of Mosul. Both were okay to be the “Heroes” of my story. The aim was to show that it is not only the elite fighters of the “Golden Division” are heroes, but the Emergency Response Division (ERD) units are also courageous and could make remarkable achievements.
Omar and Haider’s force, the Emergency Response Division, had started small. But since the summer of 2014, when the whole of Iraq has become at war against IS at once, this force grew rapidly. It was divided into three groups: the Investigators, the Snipers, and the Battle Fighters. Captain Omar Nazar commanded the battle group in which Sergeant Haider Ali was also employed.
The men led raids and nightly-commanded operations. They were trained by the Americans in particular. The ERD Commander, Colonel Thamer Muhammad Ismail, gave me the permission to accompany the force on its missions, and at every battle, the winning boosted my protagonists’ self-confidence.
At the end of October 2016, I was with Omar and Haider in the headquarters of the force in Kajara, south of Mosul, not far from a US-based, and there, I took photographs for SPIEGEL.
On October 22, Omar’s men came with two young prisoners to the base. I photographed them but did not know what would happen to them. The soldiers told me later, after torturing those prisoners for three days, that they were IS-members. A week later, they were murdered.
From this time on, my project began to change. My “heroes” did something that I would have never believed possible. In the beginning, they allowed me to watch what they were doing, and later on, they would say nothing if I used my camera .
I drove back home as Omar and Haider had two weeks free of charge as well. We had arranged for moving to the new headquarters of the force in Hamam Al-Alil, a bit closer to Mosul, and I returned to resume working on my project. I arrived before the others, on November 11, so I got to know the other officers. Things now were worse, much worse than what I expected or had been able to imagine: torturing, raping, and murdering people for the slightest, vague suspicions, or even without suspicions at all.
The soldiers had just retaken the village of Qabr Al-‘Abd from IS . Captain Thamer Al-Douri, from the Intelligence Department, was responsible of the raids. I was there when, at night, several men were arrested, among them as well was Ra’ad Hindiya, the guard and cleaner of the village’s Mosque. He was accused by one of the snitches to be an IS supporter.
First, he was taken only for a couple of hours to interrogate him, but then Captain Al-Duri told me that Hindiya was arrested again few days ago then was killed.
On November 22, ten soldiers, well-equipped with night vision devices, went on a raid. The US troops in the area were informed and followed the nocturnal raid with a drone.
Ra’ad Hindiya was sleeping with his family in a room when he was arrested. The soldiers took him to Captain Omar Nazar, my protagonist, where he was tortured for hours before they sent him in the morning to the headquarters of the Intelligence Department. There, he was tortured more, for a week. Then he, and the other suspects, were all killed. That was what Captain Thamer Al-Douri told me.
In the same night, a young man named Rashid was arrested. He who was innocent, and even the investigators of the Iraqi army said so, but his big brother joined IS, as well as his wife. That was Rashid’s disaster. He died under torture after three days, and I saw his body in the Intelligence Department.
And now starts the nightmare. After the small town of Hamam Al-Alil was completely liberated from IS, many civilians who fled from the fighting, came back. The ERD team went to arrest dozens of young men, officially, in order to clarify whether some of them were IS-men or not. Among those men arrested were a father and his 16-year-old son. The soldiers took both to the headquarters.
Mahdi Mahmoud, the Father, was hung from the ceiling, with his arms extended behind him, weighed to his back with a pallet that was full of water bottles, and then they began to beat him. His son was sitting next door and could hear the screams of his father. And I was there, and I filmed. Nobody stopped me. Later, they brought the Son and beat him in front of the eyes of his father.
Everything became more and more out of control. I thought, “Where are you caught in? Why do you film people being tortured? How can this be a part of a documentation about the liberation from the Islamic State?” But they did not think like journalists. For them, what they were doing was just normal.
At the same time, I said to myself: “You must continue to record this! You need to document it in order to prove what they have been doing and to show others their war crimes.“
Foreign reporters were in the area, but they came only during the day, and in the afternoon, they always return to safe Arbil, in the Kurdish area. And thus, at night, I was alone with the troops of the ministry of the interior.
We moved in the middle of December to the other side of the Tigris, in a new base in Bazwaia ,on the eastern outskirts of Mosul. There were two young brothers, Laith and Ahmed, whom the “Golden Division” arrested, but again were released due to lack of evidence. Now, they had been re-captured and brought back here, but in the night, were not officers there; only the soldiers who were responsible for torture.
They began to torture the two brothers only with beating, and then, they repeatedly stabbed Ahmed behind his ear with a knife. It was a technique that he had learned from American experts, Ali, one of the soldiers, boasted.
I was surprised, frightened that they let me film everything. I stayed for one hour. The next morning, a soldier told me that they both had been tortured to death during the night, and he showed me a video of their bodies, and he even sent it to me via WhatsApp.
On December 16, the two men, Omar and Haidar arrived to Bazwaia, and I wanted to shoot for my documentation about Captain Omar Nazar and Sergeant Haider Ali, the sunnite and the Shiite who wanted to fight together against IS. Earlier that night, the soldiers received various names from a snitch who said they had allegedly fought for IS before. The soldiers simply left to arrest those men without further clarification or an order from the higher officers, and I was allowed to come along.
The second person they took out from their house that night was a man named Fathi Ahmed Saleh. They dragged him out of the room where he was sleeping with his wife and three children. Then Sergeant Haider Ali went into the room announcing that he would now rape the wife. I followed the others to see what they did to the husband. Five minutes later, I met Haider Ali in front of the open door again. The wife was crying. Captain Omar Nazar asked him what he had done.
“Nothing”, responded Haider Ali, “She has her days.”
I filmed into the room in which the woman was sitting with her youngest child in her arm. She looked at me. I filmed, without thinking about it.
When I looked at the video later, when I saw how she was looking in my direction, kissing her child, I thought: She must have accept that I was filming in this situation so that people can know what has happened! In the meantime, the other soldiers cleared the house and stole whatever they wanted to take with them.
The last prisoner that night was a young member of the People Mobilization Units, known in Arabic with the acronym “Hashd”. He had also fought against IS, but he was a Sunni, and the Shiite Hashd hate Sunnis, so they brought him into the building of Omar Nazar, where he was raped by one of the soldiers. The men that I accompanied had experienced hard, heavy fighting, but now they thought that they would be allowed to do everything that murders and rapes were halal and legitimate for them. When they came back from their night raids and were asked about what they had done, Captain Omar replied: “Oh, everything! We have taken the men, the women, and looted the houses.“
The superiors knew everything. The Americans must have been aware of what happened.
There was even a kind of a competition between the National Police and the ERD of the Ministry of the Interior: when the police told the others how they found and raped a good-looking woman in some house, the ERD men would go there again and rape her. The fight against the “Islamic State” was less and less important to them.
And if the men of the ERD unit have a strategy at all, they will put all Sunnis of the area in fear of death and horrors only to force them to leave their homes in order to change the demographics of the north of Iraq.
It was my last day at the ERD. I could not bear filming what was happening any longer. I thought later: “This could be my wife or my daughter.”
Once, Captain Omar and one of the soldiers asked me to join in. It was an absurd situation: they all treated me as a part of their team.
I had to do it because of fear. I am a Kurd, working for an American Photo Agency, and they were four, armed man, but I was alone. They said again and again: “Now come, you beat him, do it!” I then gave one of the prisoners a slap in the face. Not too hard, not too soft. That was awful, and it was the last thing I did there.
I pretended that my daughter was sick and I had to go back home, so I drove to my home town of Khanaqin, but only for a few days. Afterwards, I brought my family to a safe place and left Iraq, my country, because it was clear that my life would be in danger as soon as I publish the evidence of these war crimes.
Now I understand why it was so easy for IS to take Mosul and other Sunni areas. The people there were afraid not to survive without military protection, but ultimately IS worsened their situation.
I live in a foreign country now. Where exactly? I would not say; for security reasons. I sometimes ask myself what Omar and Haider think of me now. I have not broken any promise, and I did not film anything secretively.
They all have watched as I documented their abuse for hours. Yes, and later, they sent me videos of their murders when I asked. And in the case of the two killed brothers, they even told me explicitly that I could these videos for my Documentation. They had lost all the standards of what is right and what is wrong.
Originally, I wanted to be with the two men in the aftermath of the freed Mosul as the last part of our common history. This now will no longer happen. I wanted to represent them as heroes, but that too will never happen.
It is not easy to go elsewhere and start a new life there. Khanaqin is my home. I loved living there, but this is the price of my work, and to publish what I have seen.
It is my price, and I will pay it.
Since Omar, Haider and the other officers have understood what the publication of their deeds can mean for them, I receive threats. First came the questions: “We need to speak to Ali. Where is he?”
Then it became clearer and more specific.
When I traveled to Qatar on January 4, 2017, everything was still quiet. After I arrived, I contacted Haider Ali on Facebook, asked him if he could send me the video he had shown me how he and Captain Omar Nazar shot one of their prisoners from behind. The man ran through the steppes and begged for his life, but they shot at him as he ran, even after was already lying on the ground.
“Sure”, Haider wrote back – and sent me the video. I still have it on my phone.