A place called Al Khafsa, near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, has become a symbol for the horror of extremist rule. “And if you're curious and you want to go there, don't worry about asking anyone for directions,” says Assad Karam*, a local from Mosul in his 20s. “The smell will lead you there.”
Al Khafsa is a valley south of the city near a village called Al Athba. It has become famous as a place where extremists from the group known as the Islamic state dispose of corpses. Rumour has it some enemies of the group have also been thrown in alive. And it is thought that there may well be hundreds of bodies rotting there.
Karam and a friend decided to go there; he told NIQASH his story.
Al Athba is about 20 kilometres south of Mosul and the valley of Al Khafsa is about five kilometres from the main road that connects Mosul and Baghdad. Locals have known about the place for a while; when the Islamic State, or IS, group first took over the city, there were rumours that more than 200 prisoners being held at Badush prison, west of Mosul, had been executed and their bodies thrown into the valley.
“I drove my car there and one of my friends came with me,” Karam tells how he and a group of others were curious enough to make their way to what rumours said was a valley of death. “We turned left off the main road and took a dirt road that zig zagged around. I drove about four kilometres until I reached an area that seemed empty of people. But there was a chimney there from one of the primitive refineries where people are producing their own fuel and one of my friends used to work there. So we stopped and asked him about Al Khafsa. All he would say is, 'why on earth do you want to go there?” You will see terrible things there and I advise you not to go'.”
“We didn't listen to him though and we kept driving,” Karam continues. “After a while we started to smell something really terrible and we felt like we would faint because of this stench. We knew that we must be close. And we were: The dirt road ended in this cursed place.”
“We left the car on the road. We then saw a hole in the ground about 50 meters in diameter. You couldn’t see the bottom because it's very narrow and dark. I had to pinch my nose because the smell was truly unbearable. My friend couldn't handle it. He returned to the car.”
Many of those in Mosul who were arrested and detained by fighters from the IS group for whatever reason have heard the word Khafsa before – their interrogators would often threaten to throw them into this hole if they didn't cooperate, says Yusuf al-Shammari, who was arrested by the IS group. Al-Shammari was released several weeks ago and he fled the city for Baghdad.
Now safely in the Iraqi capital, al-Shammari went online to search for the place he'd been threatened with while in captivity. He eventually found a video clip on YouTube. “When I watched it, I thanked God that I was not thrown in that hole,” he says.
The video shows blood on all sides of the hole as well as body parts on the walls.
The nearest inhabited place to the Al Khafsa hole is the village of Al Athba, about six kilometres away. The people of this town say that when they see cars belonging to the IS group coming there, they know someone will die or be thrown into the hole. Everyone knows that the IS group's doctrine means that non-believers or Muslims who oppose the group cannot be buried in Muslim cemeteries. This includes any former IS group fighters who try to leave the group. That's why they dump them here, on unhallowed ground.
Karam says that while he was filming the hole in the ground, he saw something even worse. “While I was filming, two cars with the Islamic police logo arrived. Six armed men jumped out and they had three men, blindfolded with their hands tied, with them,” Karam recalls.
“I stopped filming and got back into my car. The IS policemen forced the men to kneel – these men were screaming and crying and begging. One of the policemen shouted “God is great” and shot the three men in the head, one by one. Then they threw the corpses into the hole.”
“We had to drive close by them on the way out and one of the murderers told us: “This is the fate of apostates who join the Popular Mobilization [militias fighting against the IS group]. Then he shouted at us in a frenzy: 'The Islamic State will survive!',” Karam says.
Karam visited the site about a month ago and there were other locals there then too, also drawn by rumours. Since then Mosul locals have heard that the IS group had given orders that the Al Khafsa hole be filled in. Trucks brought debris, earth and other scrap and started filling the gruesome hole, they said. The work took several days, one of the workers at the home-made refineries confirmed.
Speaking to Karam about the apparent end of Al Khafsa, he replies wryly: “They demolished it because they are afraid that soon they will be thrown in there too, when their fake state ceases to exist. Hopefully that will be soon.”
*Karam's name has been changed for security reasons.