BAGHDAD, Iraq – A Kurdish witness at Saddam Hussein's genocide trial told the court Wednesday that he survived a massacre by running and falling into a ditch full of bodies as troops fired on his group of detainees.
"It was really unbelievable, the number of people being killed like this. A detainee called Anwar recited the Islamic prayers before death and asked for forgiveness," the man testified, speaking from behind a curtain to conceal his identity for fear of reprisal.
He said he was in a group of detainees who thought they were being taken to another detention center during the military offensive that Saddam's government waged against the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.
"It was dark when they brought a group of people (prisoners) in front of the vehicle. The drivers got out of our vehicles and turned on the headlights."
He said some prisoners tried to snatch an automatic rifle from one of their guards, but the prisoners failed to grab the gun because "we were so weak."
He said soldiers opened fire, spraying the prisoners with bullets.
"I ran and fell into a ditch. It was full of bodies. I fell on a body. It was still alive. It was his last breath," he said.
He was lightly wounded. He took off his clothes in the ditch, thinking he was more likely to blend into the color of the sand if he were naked. He then began running again.
"As I was running, I saw many pits, I saw many mounds, and I saw lots of people who had been shot," he said. "The desert was full of mounds that had people buried underneath."
The witness said he took refuge with some Kurds who lived near the massacre site, and travelled north. For 15 years he lived in hiding, moving frequently, until Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
He said the detention camp where he was held, Tob Zawa, was "a town of panic".
"Whatever I say would not truly describe it," he said of Tob Zawa, where detainees were brought in vehicles reeking of urine and human feces.
He said a detainee who was a doctor was taken away and never seen again. The guards assaulted a man with a beard.
"They broke two of his teeth because he had a beard," he said. "They told him 'if you don't take this beard off by tomorrow morning, you will be executed'."
On one occasion, the guards separated the children from their mothers. "The mothers were screaming, shouting and kicking the door. The guards came and said 'Don't worry about the children. We are going to feed them'. After two hours, the guards brought the kids back."
Saddam and six co-defendants are standing trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity during an offensive against the Kurds in 1987-88 that was known as Operation Anfal. The prosecution says about 180,000, mainly civilians, were killed.
Saddam and one other defendant are also charged with genocide.
The seven defendants face death by hanging if found guilty.