Saturday 20 December 2014

Exodus from the Iraqi town as old as Christianity itself

Richard Spencer

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

Refugees from the violence in the Iraqi province of Nineveh arrive at Sulaimaniya province. Inset: Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the front line in Khazer
Refugees from the violence in the Iraqi province of Nineveh arrive at Sulaimaniya province. Inset: Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the front line in Khazer
Refugees from the violence in the province of Nineveh arrive at Sulaimaniya province
A member of the Kurdish peshmerga forces sit with a weapon during an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Makhmur
Shi'ite Muslims listen to Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Al-Karbala'i speak as he delivers the text of a sermon by Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at the Imam Hussein shrine in the holy city of Kerbala
A displaced Iraqi Christian woman holds a picture of her four-year-old relative, David, who was killed by militants, at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Late Wednesday, militants overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area, several priests in northern Iraq said Thursday. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

THE last day of Qaraqosh's time as a Christian town, a time almost as old as Christianity itself, began with a mortar shell at nine in the morning.

It came through the roof of Melad and Marven Abdullah's house, killing them instantly. Melad was nine; his cousin, Marven, four. The mortar struck Marven in the head as it landed. They found his arms and feet, crushed against the wall, but nothing else.

The family's next-door neighbour, Enam Eshoo, had brought them some fresh drinking water; she too died where she fell.

The day ended with an order to evacuate. Within a couple of hours, the city's tens of thousands of inhabitants were pouring down the road from northern Iraq to Kurdistan, fighting with troops manning checkpoints, trying to find shelter where they could. They crowded the streets of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.

Erbil's newly Christian suburb, Ainkawa, swelled by exiles from 10 years of punishing terror and oppression, is now full of stunned and helpless people.

They are camping on the floors of church halls, in a building site, in the street. An old woman was sleeping in a flower bed. Another begged for help.

"Please take me home," the woman, Azat Mansur, said. It was not clear what she meant by "home"; it sounded more spiritual than real, since her home is now under the control of the jihadists of the Islamic State, formerly known as Isis.

"I can't stay here any more, or anywhere else. They are going to kill us. They will cut our heads off if we stay here."

There is great fear that the jihadists will continue to advance, that even Erbil is not safe, two days after the extremists marched to within 30 miles.

Mrs Mansur knows them directly, having fled their progress into Mosul last June, from where she and all other Christians were expelled.

The jihadists stole $2,000 and her mobile phone at a checkpoint before they let her go, she said.

The refugees' plea for help from the West is now tinged with despair. "The Pope says he wants peace," said Mazen Elias Abdullah, the grieving father of Melad. "Well, if he lives in Peace, perhaps he could take us there. We don't want to live here any more. We would like to live in Peace too."

Qaraqosh is, or was, the largest of a triangle of Christian towns north and east of Mosul. It was the largest Christian town in Iraq. It has been Christian since the earliest years of the faith.

It is fair to say that there was no great time of peace in Qaraqosh's history.

The presence of the Christians, mostly ethnic Assyrians, descended from the plain of Ninevah's earliest inhabitants, has often been challenged by its neighbours - newcomers, in their view - who were also, in Ottoman times, its overlords.

They have been driven out before by Persians, by Kurds, and by Turks. They survived an attempt to take the region by a local Ottoman Pasha. They always fought back, or came back.

Islamic State, the ultra-jihadist al-Qa'ida offshoot that now controls large parts of Iraq, first tried to attack the community in June, after it swept through Sunni areas of the north and west.

In that case, they were beaten back, or at least did not press their assault. It seemed for a while as if their forces were stretched thin, bolstered by their allies in the primarily Sunni tribes of western Iraq but not able to reach into areas where those tribes had no interest, such as Kurdish or Christian regions.

The promised attack on Baghdad never materialised. But that assessment was wrong. In the past three weeks, Islamic State has made substantial gains in Syria and against the Kurds, seizing 17 towns in the past week alone, by their own account, along with Mosul dam.

Mr Abdullah, a member of the local home guard, was on duty when the mortar hit on Wednesday morning.

"There was blood and flesh on the ground," he said, as he stood in the gardens of St Joseph's Cathedral in Ainkawa, a church of the Chaldean Catholics, one of Iraq's patchwork of sects.

He himself, like most in Qaraqosh, is from the Assyrian Catholic church. Alongside Marven and Melad, who was killed by shrapnel in the head and chest, Anas, Mr Abdullah's seven-year-old son, was also seriously injured. The mortars landed all Wednesday and families began to pack up and leave. The Abdullah family and the relatives of Enam Eshoo stayed on for the funeral in the Church of the Virgin Mary.

There has been a church on the site since the earliest years; it was mentioned by 12th century travellers.

Not long after the funeral, a mortar landed outside the church's front gate.

Shortly after that again, a ticker tape notice on the satellite news channels flashed a warning, said one resident, Wissam Isaac.

Mr Isaac worked at a Qaraqosh primary school, teaching the local Syriac language, derived from Aramaic, the language of Christ.

The tape said the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, on whom the residents had been relying for their defence, was withdrawing.

"Before this time, no one really thought we would have to leave," he said. "We trusted the Peshmerga. They said they would save us. They stayed in our houses. We can't believe this has happened."

There is clearly suspicion at the motives of the Peshmerga.

The threat did not seem to match the speedy retreat of a force vaunted as the strongest in the country.

One man, unable to leave because he has an injured foot, is among the fewer than 100 people to remain in the town.

His cousin told him by phone, before the battery ran out, that there were comparatively few jihadists there, "mostly young, with beards from centuries ago".

These people are less interested in the two bombs that Washington finally dropped on the Islamic State yesterday, regarding them as too little, too late.

Mrs Mansur said an army was needed, not just an air force. "America is powerful," she said. "They have the weapons."

"Don't bother with weapons," said a voice. "Just send Green Cards." (Daily Telegraph, London)

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