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ISIS Is Almost Defeated in Iraq, but Thousands of Christians Refuse to Return to Their Homes

07_07_IraqiChristians_01
07/07/17
In the Magazine
A picture of Jesus defaced by Islamic State militants lies on the floor of a church in Qaraqosh, the largest predominantly Christian city in Iraq. During its two-year occupation the group tried to erase all symbols of Christianity. Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville​

Three years ago, as darkness fell over the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, Sabah Petrus Shema helped his extended family pile into a pickup truck and leave town. When they were gone, he grabbed two Kalashnikovs and waited as the sound of mortar fire drew near.

Miles down the road, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was advancing. By early the next morning, nearly all of the town’s residents were gone, and a stream of panicked soldiers began to pass through, retreating from the front. That’s when Shema knew it was time to flee. “It was a painful decision,” he says. “We were leaving behind our homes, our churches, everything. All we took was our clothes, our IDs and some money.”

Qaraqosh was among dozens of towns in northern Iraq that ISIS overran in 2014. Over the past three years, the Iraqi army has regrouped, with the help of Shiite militias, Kurdish forces and American airpower, driving the militants out of all but a few small pockets, such as central Mosul. But while predominantly Muslim towns have begun to rebuild, in Qaraqosh and other mostly Christian places, few residents have returned. Fearing more war and extremism, many worry they never will. “The future in Iraq is full of ambiguity,” says Shema, who now lives in a refugee camp in Erbil. “After ISIS is gone, there may be another group that is even worse.”

07_07_Iraq_01 An Iraqi Christian family displaced by ISIS from their hometown of Bartella, on the edge of Mosul, prepares to go on an outing from their new home in an IDP camp in Erbil. Tommy Trenchard

Today, most of Qaraqosh looks like ghost town. Weeds and wildflowers have sprouted along the main roads, and there’s an eerie silence, save for the occasional passing truck filled with soldiers from the Nineveh Plains Unit, a Christian militia.

The destruction of Qaraqosh was systematic, and everywhere you look, the buildings are charred from flames. ISIS fighters went from home to home, dousing them in chemicals and setting them ablaze. In churches, they smashed religious icons and slashed the faces of paintings of Jesus and Mary. Throughout the town, they left booby traps and improvised explosive devices, some of which remain.

Yousif Yaqoub, the president of the Beth Nahrin National Union, an Assyrian Christian political party, believes the militants wanted to make the town uninhabitable, to send a message to the country’s Christians. “It’s not just in Qaraqosh,” Yaqoub tells Newsweek by phone from Erbil. “In the other Christian towns too, they tried to destroy every single house.”

Given Qaraqosh’s disrepair, it’s understandable that few residents want to return. Yet other Muslim-majority towns suffered worse destruction and have sprung back to life in the months since ISIS fled. Even in Mosul, where fierce fighting continues, once shuttered stores have reopened, and empty neighborhoods are now bustling with people. On a visit to the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of western Mosul in April, just a month after it was recaptured, shopkeepers were repainting their blackened storefronts even as gunfire and explosions erupted a few blocks away.

Though a few Qaraqosh residents have started trickling back in recent months, the vast majority aren’t. Before the ISIS invasion, 50,000 people lived here. Now, there are only an estimated 180 families. The Christians are concerned over how readily some of their Muslim neighbors accepted the rise of ISIS. “There are still many people who support ISIS,” says a Nineveh Plains Unit member, who identified himself only as Major Latif. The militamen periodically conduct raids to break up sleeper cells in the area.

In recent months, ISIS sleeper cells have launched attacks in and around parts of Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as in the capital, Baghdad. “We are afraid of all the people who supported ISIS,” says Shema. “They were brainwashed. Even the children were taught to kill. If security was present, then we could go home. But in Qaraqosh there is no justice, no law to protect us.”

Many Iraqi Christians fear the law will never protect them. ISIS, they feel, is just one of many extremist groups that have threatened non-Muslims since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Before the American invasion, there were roughly 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Since then, their numbers have dwindled to 500,000. Most, such as Shema, are now living in displacement camps in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. The conditions are cramped but adequate, in part because the plight of Iraq’s Christians has become a cause for faith-based charities across the world.

Yet for Shema, life in the refugee camp is a form of purgatory—his home will forever be Qaraqosh, even if he doesn’t know when he can live there again. He’s visited once—briefly—since ISIS pulled out. All his furniture had been stolen, and there was ash covering the floor. In the front garden, his flower beds had disappeared, and there was a gaping hole where Iraqi troops had dug up an IED.

“It was a great shock,” he says. “[ISIS] destroyed everything.”

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