I don’t understand how people can harm each other so much,’ sighs security guard Louis Petrus. Louis has just returned to his hometown for the first time: the Christian city of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, which he had to flee on 6 August 2014, when Islamic State (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.’

Fr. Sharbil  Eeso a 72-year-old Catholic priest has also just returned home to the liberated city of Qaraqosh, which he was forced to leave on 17 August 2014. It is chaos in the seminary and the associated office. In their search for hidden treasures, IS militants tore down ceilings, destroyed statues and trashed the place.

‘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. Just the other week, a young 13 year old jihadist emerged from the tunnel system which IS has built underneath the city.’

During their occupation the jihadists enthusiastically desecrated the Catholic churches in Qaraqosh, going so far as to writing battle instructions on the walls and transforming St. George’s Church Syrian Catholic into a bomb factory. When the town was liberated, hundreds of bombs and grenades, of all shapes and sizes, were found lying there, waiting to be fired.

Also discovered in the Church were the recipes needed to turn the chemicals which were stashed in the Church into deadly explosives.

‘Despite all the damage, I have hope for the future,’ says Father Sharbil smiling.

‘If our security is guaranteed, Christians can continue to live in Iraq. Our fellow  Christians in the West should 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 and the security situation in the liberated territory. 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. 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 being 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. 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). However he points out that since the jihadists had no respect for life or property ‘it will be a long time before all damages will be repaired.’

‘Some of the townspeople lost everything because of the IS invasion, others have had their house burnt and some are even less fortunate, even though everyone had to leave this city for over two years. 

We not only have to reconstruct and rebuild this city, but we also have to help the people and their families recover from the damages they have suffered. Since the Iraqi government remains in crisis, we must rely on the international community to help us 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 foreign-looking jihadists were identified in Qaraqosh, but they disappeared before we were able to arrest them.’

In the meantime, Manal Matti visits the blackened church of the Immaculate Conception. She is surprised by the mannequins that are spread out across the church grounds, shot through with bullets.

‘The jihadists used the church as a shooting range and the mannequins as targets,’ she tells us, horrified. ‘The mannequins are completely riddled!’ 

Manal Matti used to run a beauty salon, just steps away from the church. She ponders: ‘I do not know when I will ever be able to see the inhabitants of Qaraqosh coming again to my beauty salon.’

 

Adapted from an earlier article prepared on behalf of Aid to the Church in Need by Jaco Klamer.

This article can be found in Mirror 0617.