Above: Iraq Nineve area Qaraqosh Bakhdida Man: Louis Petrus (61) in his burned house, 8-11-2016
Churches turned shooting ranges
The inhabitants of Qaraqosh in Iraq are beginning to make their way home. If their happiness of returning to their native home is immense, the challenges they find themselves confronted with are also great. The terrorist organization, Islamic State (IS), left its mark everywhere; burned-out or otherwise destroyed homes, pillaged seminaries, and churches turned shooting ranges by the IS. By the end of last year, Jaco Klamer, an Aid to the Church in Need collaborator, met with a few individuals to who had returned after two years later.
“I don’t understand how people can harm each other so much,” sighs security guard Louis Petrus. Today, Louis has returned to his hometown for the first time: the Christian city of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, which he had to flee on August 6, 2014, when IS occupied the city.
“Look at my house: it is damaged, most of my furniture has been stolen and my household effects are broken. Other inhabitants of Qaraqosh had prepared me for what I would find in the city. I had heard stories and seen pictures of the destruction caused by the jihadists. Now that I am seeing the city with my own eyes, I do not know what to feel. The IS terrorists have destroyed a lot of my possessions, but I am still quite well off, considering the damage that I can see in my neighbours’ houses: many houses have been burned or even completely destroyed. I have been blessed.”
Church turned military centre
Today, the 72-year-old Catholic priest Fr. Sharbil Eeso has come to the liberated city of Qaraqosh, which he was forced to leave on August 17, 2014 for the third and final time. It is chaos in the seminary and the associated office: in search of hidden treasures, the occupiers have brought down ceilings. Statues were destroyed, paperwork overturned. “We are not allowed to clear up the mess yet,” he says, while he shakes off the dust from his recently recovered priestly headwear. “First, the damage needs to be assessed carefully and documented thoroughly, and that can only start when the city is safe. Last week, a jihadist emerged from the tunnel system which IS has built underneath the city. The red brigade of the army immediately shot and killed him: the boy was about thirteen years old.”
Visibly, the jihadists appreciated the churches in Qaraqosh. The St. George’s Church Syrian Catholic was rebranded a bomb factory, which was, up until the hasty retreat of IS, in full use. Hundreds of bombs and grenades, in all shapes and sizes, are lying there, waiting to be fired.
“Despite all the damage, I have hope for the future,” says Father Sharbil, laughing. “If our security is guaranteed, Christians can continue to live in Iraq. [Western] Christians could do their best to keep us safe. I want to return to Qaraqosh when there is electricity and water again, although I think that safety is the main condition for returning.
Louis Petrus also firmly intends to return to Qaraqosh: “I don’t want to leave Iraq, unless all the inhabitants stay away and leave. But if two or three families return to Qaraqosh, I will too. This is my country. As soon as it is safe in the city and we receive permission to live here again, I want to rebuild my life in Qaraqosh. This is my place, I shall remain here until I die.”
The Assyrian Member of Parliament Yacoob G. Yaco travels to liberated territory almost on a daily basis, to stay informed on the progress at the front. He encourages the volunteers of the Assyrian Army: the NPU. Today, he talks to General Faris Abderlahad Yacub (54), who coordinates the tasks of the volunteer army in the Nineveh plain.
Neither one of these men hide from the fact that they have both lost confidence in the Kurdish Peshmerga, because they were abandoned when IS invaded their cities and villages. That is why they are convinced of the importance of a security army and a Christian oasis in the Nineveh plain.
As one of the five permanent Christian members of the Kurdish parliament, Yacoob represents the Iraqi Christian community. “There is a lot of unrest among Iraqi Christians,” he tells us. “The Kurds support Iraq in their battle against IS and the recapture of Mosul and the surrounding cities and villages. The inhabitants appreciate that, but many of the Christians suspect the Iraqi government of giving the Kurds land in return. The Kurds dig deep canals and build high fences that, according to them, are meant to stop IS. In the meantime, the Kurds and the Iraqi government deny having been promised territory for support and they assure the Christians that no deals were made about the land. But the canals and fences are not built on Kurdish land, but on the Nineveh plain. Meanwhile, many Christians suspect that this border is not temporary, but the start of a permanent border correction.”
“We really want to return to Qaraqosh, with our children,” says the mayor of Qaraqosh, Nisan Karromi (59), who visited the city again on October 23, while the battle around the city was not yet decided. Today, Nisan visits his office and concludes that the jihadists had no respect for his profession: his nametag lies on the ground, damaged, and almost the whole inventory of his study has been trashed. He expects that “it will be a long time before all damages will be repaired.”
“Some of the townspeople lost everything because of IS invasion, others have had their house burned. We not
only have to reconstruct and rebuild this city, but we also have to compensate the people for the damages they have suffered. Now the Iraqi government is in crisis, the international community will have to help make Iraq habitable again.”
“Before we can start picking up the pieces, the damage will have to be carefully recorded,” explains the mayor. “Besides, we cannot start to rebuild, because the security service suspects that there are still IS warriors in the passageways beneath the city. Not every house has been searched, yet for the presence of those secret passageways. Recently two Asian-looking jihadists were signaled in Qaraqosh, but they disappeared before we were able to arrest them.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Christians in Iraq since 2014 with over 20 million dollars destined in aid for emergency relief projects, education, food and the livelihoods of displaced persons.
By Jaco Klamer for Aid to the Church in Need International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, Canadian office