A Peshmerga Fighter’s Tale of Survival

Marrof Kabays and his comrades fought for their lives to escape Islamic State

A Peshmerga Fighter’s Tale of Survival A Peshmerga Fighter’s Tale of Survival
On Aug. 2, 2014 Islamic State attacked Kurdish positions and overran the towns of Kaske and Zummar. The attack broke through the Peshmerga’s defensive... A Peshmerga Fighter’s Tale of Survival

On Aug. 2, 2014 Islamic State attacked Kurdish positions and overran the towns of Kaske and Zummar. The attack broke through the Peshmerga’s defensive lines, forcing the Kurdish troops to retreat and regroup.

Maarof Kabays, a 42-year-old Peshmerga fighter, was in a unit that bore the brunt of the jihadi assault. Outgunned and outnumbered, Kabays and seven other soldiers fled through Islamic State-controlled territory on foot.

Only two soldiers—including Kabays—survived and escaped back to Kurdish lines.

“On that day, ISIS attacked us with armored vehicles and tanks,” Kabays recalled. “We did not have any heavy weapons to defend ourselves.”

His unit defended a village near Zummar. The Kurdish fighters had a Soviet DShK heavy machine gun and some RPGs—but these weapons couldn’t take out Islamic State’s tanks. Kabays said they had no choice but to retreat.

The Peshmerga tried to escape in their cars, but the militants’ swift offensive cut them off. “ISIS blocked all the roads so we couldn’t use them to go back,” he said. “Thus, we left our cars and tried to escape on foot.”

When they began their escape, their number amounted to around a hundred soldiers. But the unit decided to ditch their vehicles and split up, so the militants couldn’t overtake the whole group all at once. They didn’t want to end up like Iraqi army troops massacred in Mosul.

“I was with seven other Peshmerga, and we chose our own way to run. We walked about two kilometers when ISIS surrounded us with Humvees and pickups,” he said.

As they fled, a member of their group collapsed from exhaustion. The eight Peshmerga hid from the militants and waited for their comrade to recover. When they felt they were safe, they continued their retreat. But the militants caught up with them again.

The soldiers hid themselves in tall grass.

From their hiding place, the Kurdish fighters saw Islamic State militants closing in on a man in the distance. “We believed he was a Peshmerga, but we weren’t sure because his clothes were covered with mud,” Kabays recalled.

It was clear that the militants were trying to take the man alive. Prisoners of Islamic State typically endure abuse, torture and often brutal executions filmed as propaganda. Whoever this man was—comrade or otherwise—the Pesh didn’t want him to endure that awful fate.

“That is why we decided to fight the ISIS fighters, although we were sure that by fighting them we’d reveal our position,” he said.

Above—Islamic State militants with Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kaseasbeh, who the militants later executed. Islamic State propaganda video capture. At top—Kurdish fighter Maarof Kabays. Vager Saadullah photo

As the militants came closer to the man, Kabays and his comrades opened fire. They killed two militants, including one operating a mounted heavy machine gun.

The muddied man escaped, but Islamic State quickly retaliated against the Pesh. “It was not only ISIS who fought us back, there were also many Arabs from that village who shot at us.”

As the Peshmerga engaged the militants, a civilian-style car—an Opel Omega—approached. There was a woman inside. The Kurdish fighters didn’t shoot at the vehicle.

“But when they came closer, they took out two BKC [light machine guns] and shot at us.”

The Pesh tried to flee again to a new fighting position. As they retreated, the militants killed a Peshmerga fighter named Herish Abdullah. Not long after, the Islamic State fighters killed another member of the group—a man named Attar Aziz.

“His head fell on my shoulder,” Kabays recalled.

Aziz’s brother—Arif Aziz—was the captain of the group, and refused to leave Attar’s body behind. As the militants pursued them, Kabays got on his cell phone and called his older brother, a retired Peshmerga, and asked him for advice.

“He told me to take the captain away from his brother’s corpse as soon as I could. By then, the militants had killed four more.”

“There was only me and the captain who stayed alive.”

The Islamic State gunmen shot at them from a distance with long-range BKCs and DShKs. The Peshmerga only had their shorter-range AK-47s, and were unable to effectively return fire. Kabays managed to convince Arif to leave his brother so they could flee.

“I put grass on myself like in American movies, and told the captain that I would crawl,” Kabays. “If I arrived safely, I would throw my cap into the air so he could see, and come after me.”

Kabays crawled about 500 meters to safety, and threw his cap in the air as he promised, he said. The captain saw it, then tried to follow his path.

“Unfortunately in the middle of the way the grass fell from him—so he was uncovered. ISIS fighters started shooting him with three BKCs,” he recounted. “That made him stand on up and run toward me.”

The captain lived.

“We tried to hide again, so we went back to the first place that we tried to run from,” Kabays said. “There, I pulled out the SIM from my phone and put in another SIM, because the captain had lost his phone when he was running—and I was afraid that they might call or find our location through making calls to me.”

The two soldiers hid until it started to get dark. They decided they would pass though the nearby towns of Ainfors and Tobneh and walk east. But they didn’t know the area well. To make matters worse, the captain was sick from eating spoiled food at a farm they’d tried hiding in earlier that day.

“We reached a water company called Jizeereh at two o’clock in the morning. We snuck under the fence to hide there,” Kabays said.

The two of them were starving. So they risked going to a nearby village and knocked on a house door. A young man with a mustache answered. “We asked for water and he brought it to us, then we asked him to bring food for us. He said that he will go to his uncle’s house to bring them food.”

“I told him not to go. He asked me if I was afraid, and if that’s why I didn’t let him go,” Kabays recalled.

“I told him that I was not afraid—when in fact I was really afraid, and my AK-47 was ready in my hands.”

Kabays asked the man whether Iraqi police, Peshmerga or Islamic State controlled the city.

The man told them that the house to their left was an Islamic State compound. Kabays told him they were Peshmerga, and asked him what they should do.

“He put his hand on his mustache and said that he would keep us safe,” Kabays recalled. “We let him go to his uncle’s house, and he came back with two pieces of bread for us.”

“When he gave the bread to us, he asked the captain to give him his gun,” Kabays said. “We did not trust him, and we told him that if we saw him somewhere else we can give him a gun.”

Kabays and the captain left the house and walked for about an hour and a half, when they reached an area full of cane plants. They hid there, but quickly realized they were out of water.

They spotted a nearby farm with a house. “I told the captain that I will go bring water from that house, and asked him to cover me,” Kabays said. “I went there and saw a man harvesting tomatoes. I stole a water bottle and two sets of civilian clothes from that house and went back to the captain.”

They stayed hidden in the cane plants until the next evening, when the pair headed toward Mosul dam.

They saw 15 boats down on the river. Kabays tried to start the engines on each of them, but none of them worked. “I called my brother again—it had been 18 hours since I called him last time. I told him that we were at Mosul dam,” he recalled.

“Then I put my old SIM—that I pulled out previously—in the phone.” Kabays said. “Ghazwan Mohammed, one of my Peshmerga friends, called me and told us to stay there until a boat comes to us from their side at 10:30.”

But the boat didn’t arrive on time—and the militants were getting closer by the minute. Mohammed called again and told them to wait until midnight.

The boat didn’t reach them for three hours. At 3:00 a.m., their comrades arrived and finally rescued them. Kabays and the captain were surprised to recognize one of the soldiers on the boat.

“He was the man who we first saved from the ISIS fighters, who was covered with mud … His name was Husam.”

Husam. Vager Saadullah photo

The 22-year-old Husam told War Is Boring that he was a Peshmerga volunteer. Because he was familiar with the area, he asked the commander of the soldiers’ regiment to let him help save the men who rescued him.

Today, Kabays and Aziz are back in the same town. The Peshmerga liberated it over a month ago. Kabays said that their situation is much improved, because they now have better weapons.

Husam is still with Peshmerga as a volunteer on the front lines. He later participated in the Sinjar offensive.

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