Reporters from the New York Times interview a massacre survivor. To us, the most moving part was Ali watching his own attempted execution on a reporter’s MacBook, and his wordless reaction. But he also tells a tale of survival that has components of dumb luck, and good-samaritan action by Sunnis who might easily have turned him in.
Ali was one of 660 or so Shia recruits to the Iraqi military, who were massacred before even beginning training. The remainder of them are almost certainly in the mass graves carefully plotted by Human Rights Watch, which has taken a break from its usual bashing of the US and the West to take an uncharacteristic look at the human rights record of a radical Mohammedan group.
Ali’s story was so chilling that it seems to have shaken even the Times reporters’ reflexive support for whoever’s most anti-American in international relations.
As far as Ali goes, relying on luck is never a good idea. It worked for him, but it didn’t work for any of the 659 others in his cohort.
Some other mistakes the recruits made were:
- Placing their fates in the hands of their enemies. There has been absolutely nothing to indicate that ISIL has any quality of mercy, so this was simple wishful thinking on their part. Wishful thinking never works.
- Staying together in large groups. While this is a natural human tendency — we naturally feel more secure among the herd — it just guaranteed their capture.
- Attempting to flee along high-speed avenues of approach. These are naturally the first to be secured by advancing enemies.
- Attempting to flee in daylight. Everything we have seen about ISIL indicates that it’s a day, fair-weather operation. Traveling by day also exposes one to the brutal conditions of the Iraqi desert. Travel by night, get small during the day. Be the nothing good that happens at 0300 — to your enemies, that is.
Had the doomed recruits instead chosen to bombshell, and flee in 660 different directions as individuals, the outcome would have been different. Scores, perhaps hundreds of them would have survived. And they would have put a considerable burden on ISIL to pursue them, as opposed to tying up a few guys with small arms and a couple of dozer operators for the day.
Had they fought, even with their bare hands, instead of submitting meekly to death, they also would’ve had a better outcome. A factor in this may have been the insha’allah fatalism shared by Mohammedans of the Sunni and Shia stripes.
Had they run, that might have worked too. Another survivor, a runner, addressed the Iraqi parliament, describing his capture and escape:
Abdul-Karim said the commander told the troops that there were military trucks waiting for them at a nearby highway to take them to a base near Baghdad. Instead, the soldiers, in civilian clothes, were taken by gunmen who were waiting for them on the highway.
The gunmen later ordered batches of prisoners to go out and started to shoot them.
“We panicked after seeing our colleagues being shot dead,” Abdul-Karim said. “There was a state of chaos and some started to run away and I managed to escape from the place.”
Like Ali, Abdul-Karim survived mostly by blind luck, while many others were not so lucky.
But we must recognize that Ali did some things right, too:
- He played dead. This doesn’t usually work for most people who try it, because the murderers come back for a second shot, whether it’s the NKVD at Katyn, Einsatzgruppe 11 in Poland, the Cheka in Yekaterinburg, Kampfgruppe Peiper at Malmédy or these nameless savages on the south bank of the Tigris. But it does work for some people, and once you’ve let them tie you up and frog-march you to the mass grave, you’re out of all other options.
- He waited a very long time and escaped under the cover of darkness. He took a risk here (there may well have been other massacre survivors who perished when buried, as there were at Katyn; the Malmédy victims were abandoned to the crows, so it’s a crapshoot). But it paid off for him.
- He traveled alone and by night. The “alone” was a necessity in his case, but even a single companion greatly increases an evader’s signature, slows his decisions, and increases his probability of capture. He travels fastest (and safest) who travels alone, at least in the enemy rear area. The advantage of the night bit is obvious.
- He exercised great care in making contact with civilians. He knew he was in a Sunni, and therefore hostile, area (Ali is Shia). He was at very great risk from Tikritis who may support ISIL (a non-zero group as the Islamists have made overtures to Sunni sheikhs and to former Ba’athist elements and their families, still strong in the area). But an even greater risk is that someone might turn him in out of fear. (Or, for that matter, opportunism: what better way to ingratiate yourself with the nouvelle régime than giving them one of their enemies’ heads on a platter?)
So there are negative and positive lessons to take away from the survivors of night’s fall, and satan’s rise, over western Iraq.