IMAGE: Saddam Hussein in court
David Furst  /  Pool via AFP - Getty Images
Saddam Hussein sits in a Baghdad courtroom Wednesday, a copy of the Quran in his hand.
updated 10/18/2006 12:03:50 PM ET 2006-10-18T16:03:50

A Kurdish witness at Saddam Hussein’s genocide trial testified Wednesday that he survived a massacre by running and falling into a ditch full of bodies as troops fired on his group of detainees.

A second Kurd told of a separate massacre in which 35 detainees, knowing they were about to die, decided to attack their guards in the hope that if they struck first, at least one would live to tell the tale.

Speaking from behind a curtain to conceal his identity for fear of reprisal, the first witness 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. But their convoy of trucks stopped in the desert.

“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.”

Some prisoners tried to grab an automatic rifle from a guard, but they failed because they were “so weak,” he said.

‘It was really unbelievable’
He said the soldiers opened fire, spraying the prisoners with bullets.

“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.

“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 traveled north. For 15 years, he lived in hiding, moving frequently, until Saddam was overthrown in 2003.

The second witness, who also testified from behind a curtain, said that after a few days in Tob Zawa detention camp in April 1988, he and other detainees were told they were being moved to another facility.

But on the way, their trucks turned onto an unpaved road and they suspected they were going to be shot. The convoy stopped and they heard the sound of gunfire, he told the court.

“We knew it was the people in the other vehicle being shot and our turn would be next,” he testified. “We exchanged forgiveness and we were weeping.

“At that point, we decided that if they came to kill us, we would attack them,” he recalled. “We decided that even if one person survived, he could be a witness and tell the world of our fate. I was flashing back to the image of my son, who was 2 years old, and I was thinking of my mother, who was going to lose her son.”

When the guards began taking the detainees out of the truck, they attacked, he said.

As Saddam listened attentively to the Arabic translation of the Kurdish-language testimony, the witness said the guards fired into the truck from the outside.

“They continued to fire all over the vehicle from every direction and I was injured by a bullet in my back,” he said.

He managed to flee the vehicle and hide in some bushes. Others also survived but with wounds, he said.

The trial later adjourned until Thursday to hear more prosecution witnesses.

Seven on trial
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 convicted.

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