The battle for Mosul isn’t over yet. A part of central Mosul remains in the hands of a group of fighters of self-proclaimed Islamic State. But in Erbil, two Christian families already dream of returning to their city and restarting their lives. We visited these families at the end of May:
“I would love to return,” says Ghada, who lives as an internally displaced person in Erbil with her father William. “The house is damaged, we know.” On a mobile phone, they show some of the pictures. “They have stolen all of our furniture. What you see in the house all belonged to the people of IS who lived in our house.”
Compared to the damage seen in several of the villages in the Nineveh Plain, the damage in this house seems not too bad. Most windows seem unbroken, as if this part of the city hasn’t suffered a lot from bombing and shooting. “We hear positive things from Mosul,” she continues. “We heard that even Muslims are helping to clean one of the damaged monasteries in our city. William: “A group of Muslims has replaced the cross.” Indeed, it is very positive how these people step over their religious barriers to help the Christians.”
“Not all Muslims in Mosul supported ISIS. There are Muslims who were against them. We live in a mainly Arab neighborhood in Mosul. People living around us are good neighbors or even friends. I recently went back to see my house, these people are even shy to speak to us now. They feel that it was in the name of Islam that this happened to the Christians, that we had to flee from Mosul,” says Jounan.
Mosul was conquered by Islamic State in June 2014. In the fall of 2016, Iraqi troops supported by Kurdish militia and foreign forces started the offensive to liberate the Nineveh Plain (North and East of Mosul) and the city of Mosul itself. In the Nineveh Plain spread over several villages and towns many Christians were living before IS came. In Mosul only some thousands of Christians remained when IS took control over the second biggest city of Iraq.
“Of course, we want to go back,” says William. “Our fathers and grandfathers lived there, we have our houses and our shops. I had a factory in the city,” says Jounan, a married man with three children. “One of my daughters is in university, the other two are going to school, all in Erbil. The children are afraid to go back, my wife and I want to return.” The families managed to continue their lives in Erbil because of the support of the church. The church received financial support from our partner organization.
Both families hope that the Iraqi government and the international community will help to protect the minorities in Iraq. Ghada: “Of course, I am worried. There is no real safety in Mosul at the moment. In my heart, I still feel that something might happen to us when we go there.”
The families are impressed by how the people from the Nineveh Plain were supported during their time of displacement. “We didn’t get as much help as they did,” said Jounan. “For us, it was also more difficult to find work in Erbil. In really wanted to take whatever job, but I simply didn’t get work here. We lost everything. IS took our money and our jewelry when we left the city. My wife works for the government, so after some time we were able to arrange that the government continue her payment. I would like to go back as soon it is possible to find work again. That is much better than sitting here without work.”
What do these families dream of? “We hope that soon electricity and water supply to our part of Mosul will be restored so that we can go back,” says Jounan. “We will need help to restore our house, we have no money to do this.” Ghada: “Our only dream is to return, to go back to our house and live there again. We hope that the government or organizations will support us to restart.”
“We will first need to repair things. Some windows and doors are broken. They used the curtains as carpet. We had an image of Jesus on the wall, they put it on the floor and stepped on it,” describes Ghada regarding the situation at home. William adds: “They also damaged our electrical system in the house and cut the water pipes. It seems they also put something in the sewage system because the water doesn’t go away. When we saw the house for the first time, I was taking pictures and was crying at the same time. Our house was very nice, it was a treasure for me.”
“We never expected that we would one day end up in displacement. Our children are still scared. They saw the men of IS on the day we fled Mosul,” says Jounan. “They saw how they took all our money and jewelry and how one of the men threatened to shoot me in the head. For them it was a nightmare and still is.”
Before ISIS came in 2014, life wasn’t easy in Mosul. The city saw Christians gradually leaving the city, some left the country, and many resettled in one of the Christian villages and towns in the Nineveh Plain. “I used to have a gun next to my bed,” William says, dressed in a long green Arabic dress. “We had to be very careful in Mosul.”
Kidnappings often occurred. Jounan: “In 2007, one of my cousins was kidnapped. He was 18-years-old at the time. They asked for 15,000 USD for his freedom. We paid to get him back, but they nearly killed him. They badly tortured him, they put a scarf around his neck to strangle him and he was thrown away. They thought that he was dead. But God did a miracle, he later walked away and some people took him into their home. When they called his father, he thought it was a trick. But they convinced him, and when he came to pick up his son, he collapsed.” The young man was almost unrecognizable to his father. His eyes were swollen and closed, his head was full of bruises, and his neck was blue because of the scarf.”
The cousin and his family are doing well now, they didn’t want to live in Mosul anymore so they moved to Qaraqosh. When IS came they fled to Erbil, later to Jordan, and they are now living in the United States of America. “No, they won’t come back to live in Iraq.” But these two families see Mosul as their place. Where many Christians might prefer to live in places with a bigger number of Christians around, they go back.
The two families we met are not representative of all Christians from Mosul. “Many are afraid to return to that city,” says a Christian worker who is frequently in contact with Christians from Mosul. “Many fear the Muslims who welcomed and supported ISIS. I don’t expect them to return to Mosul easily.”
*Names changed for security reasons