Rome (AsiaNews)"I try to forget what happened," but "as soon as I'm alone I start to think and all of those images come to mind, of what I experienced there. It hurts, I'm still in shock, it is impossible to describe what happened”. These are the words of an Iraqi Catholic, one of the "lucky" survivors of the October 31 al Qaeda attack on the church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. He has shrapnel in his back and legs. But for another 58 people it was even worse, they lost their lives: among them, 46 faithful who simply had gone to Mass and the two priests who were celebrating. More than 70 injured. Of these, approximately 37 (the most severe cases) were transferred to France last November 8, 26 others, along with their families, have been hospitalized in Rome, where they spoke with AsiaNews.
"It was a Sunday and evening mass had just begun. Shortly after the Gospel reading, about 17.15, we heard the sound of gunfire outside the church. Don Tha'er, who was celebrating the liturgy, tried to calm everyone down, telling us to pray together. The noise became louder, then we heard a loud explosion and the terrorists entered the Church – five or six in all - and started shooting everywhere".
He has asked to remain anonymous. "For safety reasons," he says. He will not speak about his life before the attack. He just says: "I have always taken part in the pastoral activities of the church, I was friends with both the priests, Don Tha'er and Don Wassim. The first 32, the second27, both mowed down by the terrorists. "I was sitting in the front pew, as usual, and as the gunfire broke out I threw myself on the ground. Don Tha'er called me and told me: 'Try to get everyone into the sacristy'. Those were difficult moments, because the attackers were firing everywhere. I was trying to get to the sacristy along with others , when not far away I saw a girl wounded in the neck. I did not know what to do, whether to help her or run for my life”.
It was supposed to have been an interview. But the first question: "Do you want to talk, to tell us what happened?" was answered with a deluge of words. Unstoppable. "I saw the injured girl. I decided to go and get her to try and bring her to safety. I took her on my shoulders, but one of the terrorists saw me and threw a grenade at us: the girl died and I was on the ground wounded. I pretended to be dead. While I was on the ground I saw Don Tha'er trying to defend the altar servers: he embraced them and covered them with his cassock, to protect them, as if he wanted to hide them. One of the men attacked him, trying to beat him to his knees, but he resisted and remained standing, in the end the terrorist killed him. I could hear the cries of the people in the church, terribly afraid, when at one point I heard a voice, I do not know who he was shouting to the terrorists: 'We die, we die, okay. But the cross lives. Whoever it was, was immediately killed. "
The events of that tragic day are still fresh and painful in his memory, and that of other survivors. Details, etched forever on their minds. Indelible. "The terrorists kept moving around and shooting everywhere. When one of them passed me by, I saw he was wearing an explosive belt. They obviously had a clear plan. Two snipers were placed at the sides of the Church, two others mid-aisle and one on the upper floor. They talked among themselves by radio, insisting that everything was going as planned. The church was chosen because of its structure: it is a single piece of reinforced concrete, with three main entrances, two at the sides and the altar at the back of the nave. Outside the entrance to the church, there is a cross 49 meters high, which reflects the depth of the church. I think they chose Our Lady of Salvation, because the windows are only up at the top. In this way all the explosions inside the church were magnified, with all possible vents for their destructive force only on the upper level. That's also why they kept throwing grenades at people. Those who came out alive are those who pretended to be dead, like me. "
"At one point, while I was wounded on the ground, I tried to crawl to the altar and hide behind a wall. When I made it I covered myself with a dead body to hide. Nevertheless, I could hear what was said. One terrorist was wounded, and kept saying to his leader: 'I'm hurt, I'll detonate the explosive belt so I can become a martyr, and go straight to heaven'. At first the man who must have been the commander told him to wait, that was not yet time. Then the wounded man said, 'No, I'm in too much pain, I was hit'. So the commander gave him permission, they bade each other farewell saying, 'Okay, see you in heaven'. Then he blew himself up. His companions then began to shout: 'You are unbelievers, you will go to hell while we are going to heaven, God is great'. "
The strain of those long moments of horror are clearly visible on his face. His dark eyes betray his incredulity. At times his voice still trembles. "During the five-hour siege, the terrorists transformed our church into a mosque. They shouted their Islamic prayers, and twice preformed their sunset prayer, in the evening and afternoon. After the man blew himself to pieces, his comrades went crazy: shooting everywhere.
At first they didn’t realize that almost 60 people were hiding in the sacristy [including the wounded 75 year old Episcopal Vicar]. But when they realised it, they tried to break through the wooden door, without success: in fact the people had locked themselves inside with the metal cabinets. Then the attackers began throwing grenades at the door, until they were able to create an opening. At that point, however, they had to go back towards the main entrance, because finally the Iraqi forces were trying to storm the building. I took advantage of that moment and I crawled to the door of the sacristy. I tried to identify myself, but the people inside would not let me in, for fear that I was a terrorist. Then a girl recognized my voice, they opened the door and pulled me inside. I stayed with the others, locked in the sacristy, and I saw that many were wounded in the last explosion and that a girl and two others were dead. "
"You should know that the vestry has another door, which leads the outside, made of iron and therefore very heavy and difficult to open. I managed to call an army chief I knew on my cell phone, asking him to open that door and let us escape. But the man told me that was impossible, because the door was locked and we would have to open it. At the end of the call, he told me that the armed forces were about to enter, and it would be a tough operation. A girl and a small child had listened to the conversation and were scared, because such an attack could destroy the church, with us inside So I took them in my arms, we were thrown to the ground and I did my best to shield them with my body. The next half hour was hell, a terrible attack with bombs and rockets: the terrorists detonated their belts when the military intervened. It was a massacre. When the soldiers finally freed us they made us walk out the front door. "
It sounds like the plot of a film, but it is not. A story that leaves room for questions that must have an answer: "The attitude of the government and armed forces, was a little strange. If you know the layout of the church, you know where the weak points are, the best points from where to launch a raid. Up where the windows are, there is a roof that surrounds the church one meter wide. Above this again is another roof, where commandos could position themselves, and then enter from there through the windows. They could have picked them off one by one [the terrorists]. But this is not the only thing that was unusual. When some people who were out there - family members, people working in the area - went to ask the soldiers if they needed a hand, we heard them say: 'Go away, this is none of your business'. The military then intervened only after five hours, when the terrorists had already emptied all of their weapons on us. "
"Don Tha'er, the priest who celebrated the Mass, died because he wanted to save the children. Don Wassim with, who at the time of the attack was in the confessional, tried to talk with the terrorists to convince them to let the people and children go, and take only the two of them as hostages. They offered their lives. Don Wassim, when he made to leave the altar and approach the terrorists he was shot by one of them. The last sentence of Don Tha'er, who died before the eyes of his mother [who survived and is now recovering in France], was: "Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit." I remember these words, which he always used to say to all those in difficult moments of their lives: "Smile because God loves you"”. "What we experienced in that church was hell. I try to forget what happened, I try joking and laughing with people. But when I'm alone I start to think, the images of what I went through come to mind. It hurts, I'm still in shock, it is impossible to describe those situations. Many boys and girls were killed in the church. A friend of mine with his wife, daughter and father were killed. He asked to be killed, but to let the child live. He was not heard. There was a baby boy or a girl I do not know, who cried, the terrorists told the mother to stop him crying. But she couldn’t, and the man said, 'OK, I'll do it'. And killed the baby".
He stops, to draw breath and remember: "Before this hell, I had a normal life. Our neighbours were Muslims, the relationship with them was normal, we greeted each other, we talked with them and so on. But once the question f religion came into play they would raise their voices, saying that we Christians do not believe in their prophet who is the 'last prophet'. " The future? "Being a Christian in Iraq means you are persecuted for your faith. We want the world to know. We can no longer bear this violence".