BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The men could hear the soldiers outside, firing at the screaming prisoners. They knew they were next. Trapped inside the bus, they hatched a desperate plan to escape. If all but one died in the attempt, it would still be worth it, they decided.
At least two survived, and yesterday they told about it from behind a curtain in a Baghdad court at the genocide trial of former President Saddam Hussein.
The pair recounted villagers' flight from attack by aircraft and ground forces on April 9, 1988, as part of the so-called Anfal campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq.
Hussein and six co-defendants are charged in the killing of up to 100,000 Kurds over several months in 1988. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
One witness recounted how he fainted as guards began firing at the bus and awoke to the sound of gurgling blood in the throats of dying prisoners.
"It was a scary sound," said the man, who escaped the carnage on the bus only to fall into a ditch full of bodies as he ran away.
The witness said he took off his clothes as he ran because "the skin has the same color as the sand" and he didn't want the guards to see him. All around, he said, were mounds that he believed were graves.
The second witness described how he saw his village, Khani Khader, burn to the ground before he surrendered to government forces who had promised amnesty. Instead, soldiers took the Kurds to a crowded prison where they were interrogated, beaten and starved.
After a few days, up to 500 people were loaded on windowless buses and driven for hours on unpaved roads. Finally, the convoy stopped in the Anbar desert.
"We felt we were going to die," the witness said.
When the gunfire began, he said, "We knew it was the people in the other vehicles being shot and that we would be next."
The witness said he thought of his mother and 2-year-old son, and prepared to die.
"We exchanged words of forgiveness, and we were weeping," he said.
But then their mood changed to defiance, he said. As guards came to open the bus doors, the prisoners attacked.
"He struggled to lock the door and we struggled to open it," the man said. "And the guards outside the vehicle started to fire."
The hail of bullets killed many and wounded guards and prisoners, including the witness, who suffered a head injury.
"I fled in the opposite direction of the mass graves," he said. "There was a stream of blood underneath my feet. I was running without shoes."
Eventually, he reached a house. He prayed that those living there would not turn him over to authorities. "I told them the truth, how the Iraqi government wanted to kill me and had killed my friend," he said.
The family took him in. They gave him water, food and tea.
"I'll never forget their favor," the man said.
During cross-examination, one of the defendants, Sabir Duri, the former head of military intelligence, talked about how Iran had infiltrated Iraq's Kurdish region during the 1980s, when the two nations were at war.
The defense team has argued that Anfal was a legitimate counterinsurgency against Kurdish rebels supported by Iran.
"Even if the report is true, does this give an excuse to arrest people, including women and children, using chemical weapons against them, or executing them in the desert?" said lead prosecutor Munqith Faroon, whose brother was killed this week.
The proceedings took place despite the absence of defense attorneys, who walked out last month when the Iraqi government removed the sitting judge, Abdullah Amiri, for allegedly being too sympathetic to the defense.
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.