The ‘escapee of Palmyra’: A witness to ISIS horrors
AL-HASAKAH (Syria) - “Terror and fear prevailed. Blood spilled in the streets. Death threat was hanging over everyone on the common charge of collaborating with the ‘apostate’ regime.” With these words the “escapee of Palmyra” detailed the horrors of living for 21 days under ISIS rule in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) has seized every opportunity to show that man’s capacity for cruelty is staggering — posting videos of decapitation, summary executions, crucifixions and the burning of live victims. The escapee, a senior government official, walked for five days in the Syrian desert before he reached Damascus.
“I never thought I would have to flee Palmyra because I never imagined that it could fall into ISIS hands,” the escapee, who requested anonymity, said in an interview. “I still cannot figure out what happened. All of a sudden and without any prior notice, ISIS fighters invaded the city as the army pulled out completely and we found ourselves under the mercy of those who have no mercy at all.”
After three days hiding in the woods fearing ISIS persecution, the “escapee of Palmyra” and eight colleagues were captured and interrogated by the group’s “religious tribunal”. “We were submitted to all kinds of questions, such as ‘What is your relation with the (Syrian) regime?’, ‘Did you fight against ISIS jihadists?’, ‘What are Muslims’ duties?’, “How many times do you kneel when praying?’, etc.,” he said.
The escapee was lucky as he was sentenced to follow a “course for repentance”, while others were put in prison. After listening for a week to lectures on “ISIS principles” and its interpretations of the Quran, he was considered “penitent” and released.
After “graduating” from the course, he said he tried several times to escape without success. “I even tried to convince myself to coexist with ISIS but with every passing day I was more and more persuaded that life with them was impossible,” he said.
Residents of Palmyra, including children, were forced to watch executions of tens of victims, especially in the first three days after the capture of the city, when more than 71 people were put to death for “collaborating with the apostate regime” of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
One especially horrifying execution haunts the escapee. “I can never forget the sight of this nurse whose fingers were cut off one after the other because she had treated wounded (army) soldiers,” he said. “After severing her fingers, they crucified her in front of everybody, including her three children. She was screaming like crazy in pain. I felt that my heart was going to stop beating. While she was dying they decapitated her children in front of her eyes.
“This is beyond reason. These people are beasts.”
The nurse’s ordeal was not the ugliest execution that he witnessed, the escapee said with a choking voice and tearful eyes. The horrors of watching another medical assistant bleeding to death after his body was perforated and the summary execution of 25 Syrian troops by ISIS child soldiers in the amphitheatre of Palmyra’s famous ruins are nightmares that will haunt the escapee.
“It was the fifth day after the fall of the city,” he said. “ISIS militants forced hundreds of children, including my nephews, to watch the execution in the ruins. The children have had terrifying nightmares ever since. It was the biggest example of violation of all norms and meanings of humanity. It can’t be worse.”
ISIS crimes continued, targeting people suspected of having links with the Assad regime, including a police volunteer who was decapitated in front of his wife and children and his severed head and body hanged on the front door of his house.
“They had lists of names of ‘wanted people’, which were obviously prepared before they entered the city with the help of accomplices inside,” the escapee said. “They paid a lot of money for those who would denounce and lead them to the so-called suspects.
“They even offered me $2,000 to work for them, which I pretended to accept.”
Recounting how he and 17 others escaped, the escapee said the opportunity came up when they were asked by the “wali” (governor) of Palmyra to enroll in a specialised course in Raqqa on the “rules and laws of the Islamic State”. “While on the road supposedly to Raqqa, we all decided to flee but I will not disclose how because others might want to escape using the same routes,” he said.
“In short, I would say that we spent five days roaming in the desert until we reached a village on the border between Homs and rural Damascus and from there we got into the capital. Here again, we had to go through a series of questioning and interrogations by Syrian security agencies.” The escapee said he was happy to have fled the grip of the terrorist group, which he said pushed cruelty beyond any bounds. He said videos posted by ISIS depicting executions did not reflect the reality of their despicable brutality.
“The victims whose execution is filmed appear to be calm because they are injected with drugs in order not to resist their executioners but in reality the victims are screaming, imploring for mercy and resisting death till the end,” he added.
The “escapee of Palmyra” said he has recovered from days in the desert without food and enough water. “The most important thing is that I am away from their territory,” he said. “But I will never forget in my whole life the horrors I witnessed there.”