Mosul, Iraq -- The rugged desert that rolls gently toward Mosul in an uneven pattern of stunted ridge lines and shallow hollows seems worlds away from what is now the noisy, bustling city that straddles the Tigris River. On a deserted road that turns off the Baghdad-Mosul highway, the silence is only punctuated by the sound of wind sweeping over the inhospitable terrain; sheep feeding off the sparse vegetation offer the only movement.
It is here that the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State came after storming Mosul in June 2014, here at a huge sinkhole called Khasfa that they consolidated their stunning victory with a relentless, continuous campaign of slaughter. The deep cavity in the ground was said to have water at its base, but that was too far down to see, and the people who live nearby say its history as a dumping ground for the tortured and the dead was a long one. Saddam Hussein's regime rid itself of opponents here, according to local legend. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forebear of ISIS, is supposed to have disposed of victims here during the insurgency that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
But none of the those executioners operated on a scale comparable to ISIS. After taking Mosul from a disintegrating Iraqi army in 2014, the jihadists were wary of opponents to their rule.
Mosul was the second most populous city in Iraq. Thousands of the local police and members of Iraq's security forces had remained here and in nearby towns. One by one, those men were hunted down and taken to the ISIS jails that sprung up all over the city. Then they were driven to Khasfa in small groups, bunched up in buses or on the flat beds of pickup trucks, their hands tied behind their backs. Lined up at the sinkhole and shot in the back of the head, their lifeless bodies were tossed into the black depths. And soon enough the stream of vehicles bearing their doomed cargo became a common sight to the villagers living near the site.
"I saw it with my own eyes. They brought people from Mosul or Qayarrah," said Yaser Ahmed, a 40-year-old shepherd living in Kharbat ibn Qwan, a nearby village strung along the Baghdad-Mosul highway. "I was herding sheep, and I saw Daesh [ISIS] shoot them."
Mosul residents also bore witness to the killings. Walid Hassan, 27, who lives in the Mosul neighborhood of Wadi Hajjar, regularly bought gasoline at a tinpot refinery set up by ISIS near the sinkhole. Driving out of the city, he would see victims being taken to their deaths, and any doubts about the fate of those men were dispelled by the jihadists themselves.
"We saw the Khasfa killings on video. Daesh showed them on a big screen in a roundabout in Wadi Hajjar. You could also buy them on DVDs in the neighborhood," says Hassan.
In one such video, the camera pans into the sinkhole, revealing a perfectly round hole whose walls descend almost vertically. Khasfa is so deep that the bottom is shrouded in darkness. But on a small ledge a little below the edge, a body sprawled.
At around the same time as ISIS seized Mosul, it gained worldwide infamy with its massacre of at least 1,500 Iraqi army recruits at Camp Speicher, a former U.S. Army base in Tikrit. There are no records of how many people were murdered at Khasfa, and so far the Iraqi government has made no effort to find out. But one expert at Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 4,000 corpses could lie in the sinkhole. Some estimates by locals go much higher. Any of those numbers dwarf the horrendous death toll at Speicher.
But the terror group chose not to disseminate evidence of the murders at Khasfa through its elaborate social media propaganda arm. And at some stage in 2016, ISIS stopped taking its victims to the site. Locals said the stench was overwhelming. ISIS filled the hole with shipping containers and earth, then mined the area as well, further complicating any attempt to excavate the grave.
It is not clear why the situation here was different; why ISIS did not give it more of its usual gruesome publicity. Perhaps ISIS simply was not ready to show that much of its true face to the population of this metropolis where it had declared its "caliphate." In any case, while ISIS had set out to shock the world with its crimes elsewhere, the mass killings here received little attention outside city, and the stories of the victims have remained largely untold.
I visited Khasfa in February 2017, soon after ISIS was chased from the area, and Iraqi forces had just plunged into west Mosul, commencing the second stage of the nine month-long battle to retake the city. I expected the scene of a crime of this magnitude to generate headlines across the world, just as Camp Speicher had done. Instead, coverage of Mosul continued to focus on the fighting, and then ebbed when the guns fell silent. I came back to Iraq in March, determined to tell the story of those who lie in the sinkhole.
Ahmed Saad was a 52-year-old colonel with the Iraqi Army's Second Division, which quickly disintegrated when ISIS launched its audacious raid into Mosul. Colonel Saad was the head of a unit of explosives experts, and had been clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by the jihadi insurgency that eventually morphed into ISIS.
"He was well known by Daesh. He took part in many battles," says his son Riad as he recounts the fate of his father.
When the Second Division buckled under the ISIS onslaught, the colonel beat a fighting retreat with remnants of the division to the nearby town of Hamdaniya, with ISIS in pursuit. Once the last resistance had ceased, Saad went into hiding there, says Riad. Eschewing the option of fleeing to the Kurdish region in the north, he eventually returned to his family in Hammam al Alil, a small town on the banks of the Tigris about 20 kilometers downstream from Mosul.
But ISIS had taken Hammam al Alil soon after Mosul fell, and not long after Saad returned, a neighbor ratted him out, telling ISIS's secret service, the Amniyat, that he was hiding in the family home. One Thursday in October 2014, four pickup trucks laden with heavily armed men roared up to the house. The fighters piled out and stormed into the house, taking the family by surprise. They bundled Saad into a pickup, telling the family that he would only be taken away for questioning, and would soon be returned. The family never saw him again.
The worried Riad went to the Amniyat office in Hammam al Alil, but the tight-lipped jihadists inside were not forthcoming. He kept going, and eventually they got fed up with Riad's persistence.
"They told me that he and his colleagues had all been thrown into Khasfa. They said [those they killed] are unbelievers, and they shouldn't be buried with Muslims," recalls Riad. One of the Amniyat members, a local called Abdul Hassan, also issued a menacing warning: "If you continue asking about him, you will follow him."
It was not just military men who ended up in the sinkhole. While ISIS could be methodical in its hunt for its enemies, its deadly dragnet also caught people with no intention of opposing it. Ali Sultan, the village elder of Kharbat ibn Qwan, was one of them. He was seized by an ISIS snatch squad in August 2014 while having lunch in a restaurant on the outskirts of Mosul, and never returned to the village. To this day, his family is puzzled about why he was taken. They speculate that it was his frequent trips to Baghdad, where he visited friends.
"They didn't give a reason why they were killing people. They just collected them and murdered them," says Jassem Mohammed, Sultan's cousin.
When Sultan failed to come home, his wife Fatiya went to Mosul to enquire with the Amniyat as to his whereabouts. At first, the jihadists stalled her, but a year after his disappearance they issued a death certificate, revealing Sultan's fate to his family but not the location of his body. Fatima believes her husband suffered the same fate as the many doomed men piled into vehicles that drove past the village on the way to the sinkhole.
"He was thrown into Khasfa," says Fatima.
The bereaved families have received little help from the government since they were liberated in a nine month long operation to reclaim Mosul, which ended in July last year. Instead, Fatima is trying and failing to navigate a byzantine bureaucracy in order to apply for a pension that she is entitled to as a widow. Bouncing from one government department to another, she is struggling with simple tasks like filling out forms.
Her village of shabby brick houses and unpaved roads has never been at the receiving end of government funding, making it difficult for the villagers to fight for their rights. "Nobody can read or write here," says Sultan's cousin Mohammed.
Fatima's fate is shared by many of the families who have had relatives killed by ISIS. Identifying the bodies lying in Khasfa would make it easier for them to receive financial help, but the government has shown no inclination to unearth the sinkhole, a difficult, dangerous and expensive undertaking.
The lack of physical evidence has led many of the bereaved to refuse to accept that their loved ones are dead. This hope against reason has fused with a longstanding mistrust in the government in Baghdad to create a conspiracy theory about the disappeared that is widely believed among the families.
In a café on a busy crossing in Wadi Hajjar, a rough and ready neighborhood that still bears the scars of battle, Mohammed quietly tells the story of his son, Farhad.
Shortly before the battle to liberate Mosul began, Farhad was taken from his home by ISIS, who suspected him of passing on information to the Iraqi military. Farhad has been missing ever since. Maybe he was among the last to be thrown into the Khasfar sinkhole or he wound up in another anonymous mass grave. There are many. But Mohammed will have none of it. Mohammed is convinced that his son was actually arrested by Iraqi security forces after he was discovered in the basement of a hospital with hundreds of other ISIS prisoners.
"During the liberation, all the Daesh fighters took off their clothes and joined the prisoners. When the Iraqi army came, they knew there were Daesh among them, and all the prisoners were arrested. They are all considered Daesh," he says.
Mohammed is one of thousands who believe that their missing relatives were found in ISIS jails in Mosul, only to be taken to prisons in Baghdad on suspicion of being jihadists.
Mohammed, an elderly man who wears a traditional white thobe matching his white beard, has a heavy air about him, and his grief is palpable. He says he has spent $20,000 paying dodgy government officials and prison guards for evidence that his son is alive. It has left him considerably poorer, but just as desperate for answers.
"Can you arrange a meeting with the Americans?" he asks this reporter at one stage during the interview.
He shows a picture on his phone of emaciated men, supposedly taken by an Iraqi Federal police officer, that is circulating on the internet. One of these men, he says, is Farhad. On a Facebook group set up for families of men taken away by ISIS, the picture is ubiquitous. Some think it shows men found in an ISIS jail in Mosul, others say it was taken in Fallujah. All believe it proves that their relatives are not dead, but are languishing in Iraqi prisons.
This belief not only makes them vulnerable to con men promising them proof of life, but has turned them into a constituency for opportunistic politicians. Many praise Salim al Jubouri, speaker of the Iraq's parliament, and Saed Zaedan, a parliamentary candidate and political ally of Jubouri, for taking on their cause.
Zaedan has drawn up a list of names of people who were disappeared by ISIS, and has promised their families that he will fight their case in the capital. He is doing little to discourage the idea that these men are incarcerated in Baghdad, and is frank about his motivation.
"Of course these people will appreciate what we have done, and it will lead these families to give me their votes," he tells The Daily Beast.
He has not convinced Mohammed.
"These politicians are taking advantage of people in this matter. They are saying they will help, but in reality they are doing nothing," says the grieving father.
With Khasfa and many other mass graves dotted around Iraq, their secrets well concealed, the suffering of the victims families is set to continue.
"All these people just want is to know what happened to their relatives. They want hope," says Mohammed, "or at least certainty."