Erbil (Iraq) - Nasser Suleiman is 38 years old, his hair is grizzled and his hands ruined from years of work as a mechanic. He sits in his workshop in the industrial area of Erbil, in the Kurdish Iraqi region. The area is a messy agglomeration of sheds located in a piece of desert crossed by a rough four-lane street. Until three years ago, Nasser’s workshop was in Qaraqosh, the Iraqi town with the largest Christian population.
In August 2014, the mechanic fled with tens of thousands of people to Iraqi Kurdistan because of the Islamic State’s advance. “I got a house here with my parents, my wife and my three children,” he says. “A year later, in 2015, I tried to go to Europe: I arrived on the Turkish coast with my family, but when I saw the sea I was scared. Only my brother left. After a long journey, he arrived in Germany.”
Qaraqosh was freed in October 2016. Yet, ten months later, only a few Christian families have returned there. During their occupation, armed men form the Islamic State went house to house setting fire to most of them. At the moment, the town, 30 kilometers from Mosul, is still just a pile of rubble. Internally displaced persons go back during the day to try to retrieve what little they have left there.
Qaraqosh was freed in October 2016
On August 6, dozens of people went back there for a few hours to celebrate the anniversary of the great escape from the Islamic State. They attended mass which was celebrated at the church of Holy Mary al-Tahira, the largest church of Qaraqosh, which now has no roof after being damaged during the fighting.
“I did not feel like going to mass. I had already come back to see my workshop a few times, but it's completely destroyed,” Nasser explains. “I’m afraid of those who came from abroad to fight with the Islamic State. I know one by one the Muslims who lived by me in my town, but I do not know who came during the three years that I was away. I do not even know if they will capture them all, or if they will remain hidden to attack us again. I also fear that Isis has brainwashed the Sunni Arabs, that some have been deviated and that they will continue to attack Christians.”
Nasser is renting a house. From 2014, various local churches have spent considerable funds to help families pay for household expenses. Other families, instead, have been living for three years in containers or tents in refugee camps in the Erbil area. This is the case of Ankawa, the village built in the Christian neighborhood of the Kurdish city: a bunch of white containers which become extremely hot during Iraq’s torrid August. There are 5,000 people living there, and after Qaraqosh was freed, only two families decided to return home.
Only two families decided to return home
Ibtissam Nuj Buls is 38 years old. She was born in Qaraqosh and moved to Baghdad after she got married. She returned to her native town in 2010 after the attack at the cathedral of Sayidat al-Nejat, in the capital city: a terrorist commando broke in during mass, killing 52 people.
“We are very scared and we do not feel safe, that is why we do not go home,” she says sitting in her small three-room container in which she lives with her husband and three children. “No one could save us if we were to be attacked again. Because of this fear, I would not be able to sleep: here instead, I feel safe. The walls of our home in Qaraqosh are all burnt and the house is completely empty, all of our things have been taken away. I do not have the courage to walk back in again.”
Today Ibtissam works as a teacher in the kindergarten built inside the camp. “Every morning my husband goes to the Erbil city center and waits for someone looking for workers for occasional jobs in the neighborhood. It’s a tough life, but at least I know nothing bad will happen to me here.”
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, attacks on the Christian community have increased. Back then, Christians in Iraq were 1.4 million. According to the ADF International data, in 2016 they went down to 275,000. In recent months, during the international military operation to eradicate Isis, the situation has worsened: dormant cells of the Islamic State attacked Christians in the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk, but also in Baghdad.
The complex Iraqi ethnic and inter-confessional realm has been dealt another blow after years of exclusive politics by former Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had already caused the community to lose confidence towards the central government.
Until the arrival of the Islamic State we were living peacefully, I was not afraid; but now everything has changed
On the street next to where Ibtissam’s container is located lives Sadaya with her husband and two children. She is still shocked by what happened to her neighbor's son, wounded in Quaraqosh a few days ago by a mine while his parents were sorting out the ruins of their home.
“Until the arrival of the Islamic State we were living peacefully, I was not afraid; but now everything has changed,” she says. “I still remember the day we fled. It was August 6, 2014, shortly after Isis’s entry into town: we took what we could and headed towards Erbil. There was a long line at the security check points; we stood in line for more than 20 hours and then, thank God, the gates opened and the soldiers let us go.”
In this transitional period, the economic crisis that Iraq is facing and will face for years raises concerns.
“I do not want to go back because first of all it is not a safe place. Secondly, I graduated in English and if I go back most likely I won’t find a job,” says Mirna Azzoo, 22 years old, who until three years ago was attending university in Mosul. “I started my career here with an NGO. In Qaraqosh everything is destroyed, now there are no job opportunities. I have many dreams for my future: if I go back, I am afraid that I will never realize them.”
Nineveh plain is the cradle of Christianity, but right now we are suspended in a kind of limbo. I do not know if things will ever be like they were before
In March, before Qaraqosh was freed, the Vicar of the Anglican Church in Baghdad said in an interview that time for Christians in Iraq is over. A position that is opposite to that of Patriarch Louis Sako. The leader of the Chaldean Church in Iraq has always maintained in these years that the exodus of Christians from their ancestral lands will hurt Iraq. Today Sako is cautious: “How can Christians come back when their houses are destroyed and there are no services? But the most important issue remains that of security. It will take time for Christians to return,” he said in a recent visit to Mosul. Among local clergy caution prevails: “I do not know what we will do in the future, but for now we are remaining in Erbil,” says Father Najeeb Michaeel, an Iraqi Dominican who fled the Qaraqosh monastery in 2014.
Now he lives in an apartment in the Kurdish city in whose rooms he tidily keeps and preserves thousands of religious texts. An incredible heritage for Christianity worldwide that he has managed to save from monasteries around Qaraqosh a few days before the Islamic State conquered the city.
“The monastery is completely burnt and we do not feel like going back. Nineveh plain is the cradle of Christianity, but right now we are suspended in a kind of limbo. I do not know if things will ever be like they were before.”
Text translated from Italian