Meet a Woman Who Helped Her Town Save Some 850 People Threatened by ISIS

July 14, 2020

In June of 2014, as ISIS was gaining strength and seizing territory in Iraq, the brutal terror group committed what would become known as one of its largest mass executions.

The victims were Iraqi military cadets who were in training at Camp Speicher, a former U.S. base near the city of Tikrit. By the time the massacre ended, an estimated 1,700 of them were dead.

That number would likely have been higher by hundreds were it not for one woman and her town, who worked together to save and shelter cadets fleeing Speicher and ISIS.

“I can hear a voice calling now that reminds me of them,” the woman, Um Qusay, says in the above excerpt from FRONTLINE’s new documentary Once Upon a Time in Iraq. Gazing out on the same river she helped the cadets cross before hiding them in her home, she remembers hearing their cries: “Save us, save us. We are your brothers.”

She and others in her town of al Alam heeded their call. As the scene continues, Um Qusay points to a tent where she remembers personally sheltering and caring for 58 people: “I held them and kissed them. I made them a tray of food. Their souls came back to them. And they were comforted by me,” she says. “I felt like the entire world couldn’t contain my happiness at that moment.”

All told, she says, she and the people of al Alam helped save 850 men from Speicher.

“Of course we were afraid,” she says. But putting herself in danger to help the cadets was a risk was worth taking.

“The reason was that first of all, they are Iraqi,” Um Qusay says. “And secondly, I hated ISIS. Someone has to help and stand against them.”

Then, she offers a closing thought: “And without love, the whole world would be killing each other.”

Um Qusay is just one of the Iraqis whose stories unfold in Once Upon a Time in Iraq, a two-hour special directed by multi-award-winning filmmaker James Bluemel (Exodus). Lyrical, personal and often surprising, the documentary traces the Iraq war and the years of chaos, poverty and sectarian violence that followed through the eyes of Iraqis who lived through it — from the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, to the rise of ISIS and the fight against them. 

Once Upon a Time in Iraq premieres Tues., July 14. It will be available to watch in full at and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 9/8c.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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