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Playing Dead: How one man survived an IS massacre

One Yazidi man's harrowing account of how he used his wit and the sacrifice of family and friends to escape an IS execution
Fayez Farouz standing outside of his IDP camp in Zakho, Kurdish Iraq (MEE/Abed Al Qaisi)

Zakho, IRAQ – Fayez Farouz lay on the ground, trying to breathe as softly as possible. Every time his chest rose, his heart stopped. Desperately he tried to avoid showing any signs of life. Farouz was supposed to be dead, limp and silent like the bodies that lay around him. Instead, he lay there lifeless, yet alive, as blood – still warm – from the dead man on top of him seeped over his face, into his eyes and mouth. There was nothing he could do but lay among the massacred, waiting for the nightmare to be over, and hoping not to be caught.

Farouz, 23, attempted to flee Sinjar, a Yazidi majority town in the northern Nineveh Plains of Iraq on the 3rd of August. 150,000 fled with him. Tens of thousands made it to the potential safety of Sinjar Mountain – many, like Farouz, did not

“When the Islamic State came to our city everyone started running and fleeing to Sinjar Mountain,” Farouz told Middle East Eye as he sat in the muddy, damp internally displaced persons (IDP) tent – now his new home – in Zakho, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. “But the Islamic State, they seemed to know this was what we would do. They were waiting for us.”

Like lambs to the slaughter, Farouz and hundreds of others running with him were surrounded. Islamic State militants circled the fleeing Yazedis, rounding them off and immediately started splitting them up into groups. Women and children were separated from men – taken as prizes of war. The captured men were then separated into smaller, more manageable groups of around a hundred.

Farouz was split off with 76 men, each man told to count off their number as they were lined up and forced to walk. Frantically Farouz found his father and younger brother as they marched, Islamic State militants prodded them in line, screaming at them to walk faster.

Taken to a field not far from where they were captured Farouz knew what was coming next – with the notoriety and brutality of the militants well known, he knew he was about to be killed.

“I grabbed my little brother and told him to stand next to me, to be next to me at all times so that when they start killing us I could push him to the ground first and I would jump on top of him. That way, if they shot anyone it would be me and he would survive,” Farouz recounted. “But he was separated from me when they were lining us up to kill us. They were controlling who went where and they didn’t allow us to be beside each other.”

The militants lined each man up shoulder-to-shoulder, their backs facing their Islamic State executioners. The only interaction they had with Farouz was to ask him if he was Yazedi. He defiantly said yes.

Moments after the first shot was fired, Farouz heard the thudding sound of a man falling to the ground. Then the bullets began to rain down. Again and again, men started falling lifelessly, blood staining the desert sand below them. 

Farouz saw his father and younger brother who were placed before him in the line tumble downwards, executed before his eyes. Terrified, and unable to do anything to save them, Farouz altered the plan he’d made to save his younger brother, but this time it was to save his own life.

“When they were approaching closer I knew my time was coming, I heard the shots getting so close to me, at the last moment when they were right behind me I fell like I had just been shot, just as they were shooting,” Farouz told MEE. “I lay on the ground, and they just continued to kill all the people in the line.”

In a grotesque stroke of luck, the man shot next to him fell on top of Farouz. The man’s dead body partially shielded him from the Islamic State’s gunmen as they continued to shoot at the bodies on the ground, and the men who were still standing, placed later in the line. Covered in blood from the man on top of him, and the dead men either side of him, Farouz had found the perfect morbid refuge. To the militants, the blood appeared to be his Farouz said. Stunned and realising his plan was working. Farouz continued to lay there utterly still, playing dead in an attempt to remain unnoticed amidst the corpses that lay around him.

“I didn’t move at all, my whole body, my eyes, my mouth, was covered in blood. I was silent. I don’t know how long I was there lying with all the dead, it felt like every minute was like an hour. The whole time I was thinking – maybe I am also dead like everyone else.”

Farouz believes he lay terrified and in silence for over an hour, scared to move incase the militants were still located nearby, ready and watching for any signs of life. As the blood from the men around him began to stop flowing over his body, settling in the red pool he lay in, eyes down and petrified, all Farouz could think about was his family. He had no idea what awaited the other nine members of his family that had been running with them before they became encircled by the Islamic State – his mother, wife, two sisters, and five younger brothers. He was sure they were all captured – but at least alive. However the image of his father and brother falling to the ground dead was all he could think of.

“I lay there just thinking about my father and brother. I didn’t die that day, but my father and brother did. They are dead,” Farouz recounted, his eyes heavy, and words starting to tremble slightly, breaking down an exterior that is clearly numbed by seeing and experiencing the horrors of an attempted genocide on his religious group. 

As night fell, Farouz was surrounded by complete darkness. With everything quiet, he took a risk. Still terrified, he moved, slowly sliding out from under the body that lay on top of him.

He froze – nothing changed. Everything remained silent. Taking his chance, he shakily rose to his legs, trembling as he pulled himself out.

As his eyes lifted to scan the scene around him, a long line of cold bloodied bodies of friends, family and neighbors stretched before him, merging into the darkness that was now shrouding the massacre site. Farouz ran.

“As soon as I got up I saw all the bodies, all the dead men just lying there, as soon as I saw them I just ran. I ran as fast as I could to Sinjar Mountain,” he told MEE.

Arriving at the mountain Farouz searched frantically for anyone from his family who may have gotten away. No family members were in sight. It wasn’t until Farouz made the hazardous trek off the mountain, past Islamic State snipers through to Syria and then into the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, that he received information on his family. His two sisters and wife had been enslaved by the militants. His mother and younger brothers imprisoned. Farouz hopes to see his family again, he says, the fact they are still alive brings him hope. However witnessing the murder of his father and brother, being unable to change their fate, and the image of lying among the dead, haunts him every day.

While MEE could not independentely verify all of the details of Farouz's story, his account of persecution and executions are by no means unique and similalry graphic and disturbing accounts are coming out of the region all the time.

For him though, the events he described to MEE are permanently etched on his mind, “Everyday this is in my mind,” Farouz mumbled, eyes scanning the muddied floor of the British Aid IDP tent. “When I was laying there in blood pretending to be dead, this was all I could think about, and it is still all I think about – that they are dead.”

Outside the IDP tent where Fayez Farouz now lives (MEE/Abed Al Qaisi)

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