By Katrin Kuntz
Before Islamic State invaded, Qaraqosh was home to Iraq’s largest Christian community. Now liberated after three years of occupation, little remains and former residents are considering whether its worth rebuilding in a country with an unclear future.
Ayouka had a pure heart and he loved his country, the priest says as he walks across a ravaged cemetery in northern Iraq, preparing to recover the dead man’s body. The man was strangled by Islamic State (IS) fighters simply because he was a Christian, like the cleric.
The priest, whose name is Roni, wears his black cassock tightly over his shoulders, his eyes are lowered and he silently climbs over what’s left of smashed crosses. Now and then, the thud of mortar shells can be heard from nearby Mosul, where Islamic State is still holding on.
Our route leads past graves whose inscriptions and crosses were destroyed by IS and Father Roni steps over broken vases and a destroyed Madonna statue. The dead man is lying on the left side of the cemetery, at its outer edge. The jihadists threw him into a two-meter deep burial chamber as if he were just a piece of trash.
Now Ayouka’s body has been wrapped in a felt blanket. Next to him lie the bodies of a woman and a man, which are also wrapped in gray blankets. “IS killed them because they considered them to be infidels,” says the priest, who knew them from Qaraqosh where they lived.
Qaraqosh was once considered the cradle of Christianity in Iraq. Located some 35 kilometers southeast of Mosul along the Nineveh plains, 40,000 people lived here until three years ago – no other city in the country was home to so many Christians. The city was built in Mesopotamia, which is traversed by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and its history stretches back to biblical times.
Until about eight months ago, Islamic State ruled Qaraqosh – expelling and murdering its Christians, desecrating their churches and, in the end, burning down their homes. After the Iraqi military captured the destroyed Great Mosque of al-Nuri the week before last, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed that the days of Islamic State were almost over – around three years after IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his so-called “caliphate” at the same site three years ago.
It was a decisive, long yearned-for moment, even though IS has yet to be completely wiped out and still controls some Iraqi territory and a few towns. The liberated areas around Mosul will remain deserted for now – too many people fled and, so far, few have dared to return.
Father Roni has made it his task to resuscitate Qaraqosh. “We have to bury the dead so life can return,” he says. The bodies of 11 murdered people lie unburied at the cemetery. Some have been here so long that their faces are no longer recognizable.
On this morning, the priest has Ayouka’s body brought from the chamber so that he can be given a proper burial in a grave, where his wife stands waiting. There, the priest says a prayer for the dead, raising the palms of his hands in supplication.
A Ghost Town
With Mosul liberated, the Christians of Iraq will soon be able to return to their homeland. But who will govern the region after the IS defeat? Will Christians ever feel safe here again after some of their Muslim neighbors so brutally turned against them?
Qaraqosh currently looks like a ghost town. Islamic State bored some 30 tunnels beneath it, some ending in buildings while others are thought to stretch all the way to Mosul. There’s a four-meter (13-foot) deep hole in the ground near the cemetery leading to a tunnel that snakes its way for hundreds of meters through the hills. Mattresses and crumpled blankets can still be found in the dark and cool tunnels, where IS fighters slept only a short time ago. An abandoned bomb factory is located next to the exit.
The greatest danger here is currently posed by the mines IS laid during its retreat. When you carefully open the door to the former city library on the rooftop of the priests’ seminary, the ashes of thousands of burned books cover the floor like snow. From up here, you can see the damage caused to the buildings by the airstrikes — the burned-out rooftops and the collapsed belfry of a church.
Inside the Saint Behnam et Sara church, one of the city’s most spectacular, benches have been destroyed and charred Bibles lie on the ground. The baptismal font has been blackened by a fire set by Islamic State. The jihadists used the church’s inner courtyard for shooting practice and the bullet-riddled mannequin used as a target can be seen in the rubble.
Former Qaraqosh residents only dare to return for a few hours at a time. Most come from Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region located about an hour and a half away. They come to inspect their looted homes, bringing food with them which they eat in their empty kitchens. When Father Roni went back to visit his own home, he looked through the window into his old bedroom. “I found Viagra and underwear there. The IS leaders summoned women into my bed,” he says. “Should the city be burned down before it is rebuilt, to get rid of the pain? Or would it be better to turn it into a museum?”
Around half of the residents of Qaraqosh have left Iraq, with about 40 Christian families heading abroad each week to places like France, Jordan, Australia – anywhere but here, a region that doesn’t hold much of a future for them. Some 1.3 million Christians lived in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Today that figure is believed to be only 200,000.
Christians have been discriminated against and persecuted in the region for hundreds of years and they see themselves as the victims of a Muslim majority. Under Hussein’s rule, they were at least halfway safe. As a Sunni Muslim, Hussein was himself part of a minority in the country and he formally incorporated the Christians into the state apparatus as part of his efforts to consolidate power.
But their situation deteriorated after the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite the Americans’ claims of being liberators, the chaos they created further fomented the hatred many Iraqis had for Christians. The post-invasion governments in Baghdad focused on gaining the support of the country’s Shiite majority and they no longer needed the Christians as a bargaining chip. Christians who were persecuted in Baghdad at the time fled to Qaraqosh.
To speak to former residents of Qaraqosh today, one must travel to Erbil. Zarifa Bakoos, Ayouka’s 75-year-old widow, also lives here. An attractive woman with distinctive facial features, Bakoos is still dressed in black when she answers the door to her apartment. Inside, she sits in front of the TV, soap operas being the only escape she still has. Bakoos was crying as she left the cemetery that morning and wasn’t in the mood to stay and talk. She says her husband’s burial will be her last visit to Qaraqosh.
“We were sleeping when the jihadists came to Qaraqosh,” Bakoos recalls. She says she and her husband woke up in August 2014 without knowing that almost all the other residents had fled. “We wondered where our neighbors were,” she says. “Soon the Muslims knocked on our door and demanded money.” IS demanded that old people either convert to Islam or pay them a jizya, a special levy. That’s the only way they could obtain protected status, dhimma, and they were told they would be killed if they refused.
Zarifa Bakoos can still remember every detail from those terrible years. She describes some with complete incomprehension and others with a defiant humor. She grew up in Qaraqosh and had experienced the town as a safe Christian center in the region. A city with 12 churches that rose into the sky like stone sentinels: Tahira, MarZena, Saint Behnam et Sara. She still fondly recites their names.
“They forced me to trample a Madonna figure,” she adds. “I had to spit on a cross.” Her husband soon fell ill and the jihadists picked him up and said they were taking him to the hospital. They brought Bakoos to a house where an old blind woman lived and the two would then live there together for two and a half years. Even though their door wasn’t locked, they didn’t dare go outside, living as if they were in jail. Bakoos took care of the woman and they would often talk about the times when they could still walk freely around the streets of Qaraqosh. Now they were forced to wait until an IS man would bring them something to eat and drink – their lives had basically become one long wait, for sundown and sunrise.
When the Iraqi army closed in on Qaraqosh last October, the IS began setting fire to buildings and churches and Bakoo and her companion were scared to death. By that point, they had also grown very weak. It had been weeks since the IS men had brought them anything to eat. “We sat on the bed and hugged each other so that we would die together,” she says quietly. When the Iraqi soldiers entered their house, they both began crying. It was a long time before they stopped.
Since then, Bakoos has been homeless. “Every few days, I sleep somewhere else,” she says. A sofa here, a bed there – the Christian community in Erbil is sticking together. They’re all familiar with the stories of expulsion and fear.
Can Sectarianism be Solved?
The province of Nineveh, where the Christians have found refuge, is one of the most ethnically diverse in Iraq. In addition to Christians, it is also home to Yazidis, Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. As such, it is considered a test case for how the divided country might coalesce once again after the fall of Islamic State. It would cost $10 million (€9 million) to rebuild Qaraqosh, but no one knows where the money might come from. And coexistence is little more than a vision given that the forces that have fought against IS have different ideas about how the region should be governed.
The Iraqi central government and the Kurds each claim equal control over Qaraqosh and other disputed territories in Nineveh, threatening to create a new conflict. But who would provide protection to the Christians if they were to decide to go back?
The next morning, 50 men gather in Saint Behnam et Sara, Qaraqosh’s central church, soldiers with the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a Christian volunteer army. Their Kalashnikovs are lying on their laps. Above them, the church’s ceiling has been blackened by the soot of the fires. The destroyed church is defenseless on the plains and these men are its only protectors.
“We’re still afraid,” says the bishop. “But we want to tell IS that they have lost. We will rebuild our city again and restore life.” The bishop of Qaraqosh is also rebuilding his home here in the city, wanting to encourage others to return. One solder after the other kneels before him, pushes his weapon to the side and takes the wafer and wine of communion.
The church and the militia are the only forces fighting for Qaraqosh right now but not even they can agree on what the city’s future should hold. The church doesn’t dare summon its followers back to a region where it cannot protect them and hopes to cooperate with the Kurds who have thus far provided for stability. But the NPU’s Christian soldiers are leaning more toward Baghdad. They helped liberate Qaraqosh together with the Iraqi army and have often felt patronized by the Kurdish Peshmerga.
In a sparse barracks located right next to the church, around 20 young men sit down to a meal of chicken and rice in NPU quarters. “If it weren’t for us, even more Christians would have fled Iraq,” says their spokesman, Athra Kado, a self-confident 27-year-old. Given the choice, he would grant sole responsibility for the administration of the Nineveh province to his troops. NPU was formed in late 2014 and it has 500 volunteers, 70 of whom have been assigned to Qaraqosh. The unit also receives financing from the Iraqi central government while the men borrowed their weapons from the Kurds. Many don’t have any combat training.
Former residents of Qaraqosh would like to see Nineveh become an autonomous region with up to eight provinces, which would in fact be permissable under the constitution. Each province would then be home to a different minority. In this scenario, Nineveh would also remain part of Iraq and subject to its constitution, while international oversight and corresponding laws would provide protection for the Christians. Such is the utopian vision.
The young NPU spokesman dreams of a special protected zone in which Christians could live undisturbed by others. “We’re at a turning point,” he says. “Either we get our own protected homeland or there will soon no longer be any Assyrians here. If we don’t separate our ethnicities now, another IS will emerge in Iraq in a few years.”
After the meal, Kado and his men head back out to continue guarding the destroyed churches, providing instruction to a few trash collectors as they rake up debris, and keeping watch over the entrances and exits to a city that doesn’t have anything left to steal. They have also erected a new cross before the city.
A Family Returns
Few families have returned to Qaraqosh, but the Abosh family is one of them: Two old brothers have returned with their wives and one of their sons.
“No one forced us to come here and no one is giving us any support, either,” says Hazem Abosh, a 62-year-old man with the hands of a laborer. Before IS arrived, he says, they had a “great life” here and the Aboshs were successful chicken farmers. But IS built tunnels under their old sheds and stole their tractors. The NPU militia delivers water and produces electricity with generators, but there’s nothing else.
The Abosh’s home is located on a ravaged street in the city and the neighboring houses are riddled with bullet holes. A portrait of a saint hangs on the wall of the living room and there’s a sofa, but someone stole the television and tiles are missing on some of the walls. “We Christians are the losers in this conflict,” Hazem Abosh, says. “But we want to live here.”
In the kitchen, the women are preparing vegetables they purchased in Erbil – part of their effort to instill a sense of normality in the ghost town. “After the fall of Saddam Hussein, it was the job of the international community to protect minorities,” Hazem Abosh says in the living room. “But no one supported us.”
Hazem Abosh and his wife have 11 children, but only one of them, Samer, has stayed with his parents. A shy man, Samer feels safer with his parents than on his own. The Aboshs are angry and hope for financial support, protection, a state and a government. Thus far, though, no one is doing anything for them.
“To us, it feels like there was a plan to drive the Christians out of Iraq,” says Hazem Abosh, adding that he doesn’t know anyone who wants to move back to Qaraqosh. “But we’re going to stay here. It’s our right. And we’re old and we would rather die here than in a foreign country or a refugee camp.”
The relatives, neighbors and friends of the Aboshs who are still in Iraq are living in the Ashti refugee camp near Erbil, which is providing refuge to 6,000 Christians. Hundreds of men and women have gathered there on a recent afternoon in a provisional church. Many are wearing cross necklaces; you can see the fatigue in their faces. Almost all are from Qaraqosh. They miss the city, but they don’t yet dare to return.
The church is as spacious as a gymnasium and standing at the center is Ibrahim Lallo, a stocky, affable man who once served four churches in the Nineveh province. He’s leading today’s sermon and he wants to do the Way of the Cross. The cross is made of solid wood and the faithful carry it outside on their shoulders. The crowd slowly proceeds, sandwiched between corrugated metal structures and aid agency tents as they chant their prayers.
Lallo clutches the microphone tightly and reads from the Bible as they reach each station of the cross. He’s the father of five children, four of whom have left Iraq, and he wants to create a home for the last Christians here. Lallo leafs through the pages until he gets to the spot where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. His voice trembles as he speaks the words of his faith and the people repeat his words. It’s a historical moment – this celebration is the last remaining expression of Christianity in Iraq.
Later, at the camp’s office, Lallo says it’s unlikely he will ever return to Qaraqosh. “No one can protect us,” he says. “We’re afraid it will be a calamity for us.” He then wants to talk about the Bible passage with Judas, which so moved him. He says that nobody here will forget the fact that it was their Muslim brothers from neighboring towns who ultimately betrayed the Christians.