In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, in the lobby of the Tangram hotel, my interpreter Salar and I watched the newest ISIS execution videos. Salar had access to videos that weren’t public. “The Chinese thought of this one,” said Salar, a fifty-year-old Sunni from Kurdistan. Four men in a cage were lowered into a swimming pool and held underwater until they drowned. They were raised wet and limp. A prisoner’s mouth oozed foam. “It’s not very nice actually,” he said.
A restaurant on the third floor of the hotel overlooked a detention center for terrorists. In the front lobby there were free apples, but not many customers. Our waiter, Basim, a young Iraqi Christian, served us coffee.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Bartella,” he said.
“I was just there,” I said.
“Did you see my house?” he asked. “Did you see if my things were still there?”
Salar and I laughed. But Basim was blinking. “Did Daesh take my stuff?” he asked. We didn’t know. Bartella was still under the control of ISIS, I said. We were close enough to see the village through the lens of a telescope.
In the next video, ISIS fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a car soaked with fuel and packed with prisoners. The men burned alive. Another video, called “The Reality of the American Raid,” was a response to an American raid on a prison in Hawija. It began with an ISIS fighter sawing the head off a Kurdish prisoner while three other prisoners watched. The camera zoomed in on the men’s faces while they watched the beheading. The executioner set the severed head on the body. Though the head was no longer attached to the body, the mouth opened and gulped for air.
After that we saw a video of a Kurdish peshmerga soldier and a young ISIS fighter in a ditch. The peshmerga soldier gave water to the ISIS fighter, and the fighter kissed the peshmerga soldier’s hand. “Who are you?” the fighter asked. “We are humans, just like you,” the peshmerga soldier said. Then the peshmerga soldier climbed out of the ditch and shot the ISIS fighter. No news outlet would publish the second half.
Basim sat down next to us on the couch. “Tomorrow I’m leaving,” he said.
“You are fleeing ISIS?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m trying to find love.”
He had been in love with a woman in Bartella. They dated for many years and planned to marry, but her family didn’t like Basim because he wasn’t from a wealthy family. They tried again and again, but the family wouldn’t approve the marriage.
“I’m going to take the boat to Greece,” he said. “I hope I don’t die.”