Iraq: First Christian Families Return to Liberated Villages
A clear sign of hope in desperate times, a ray of light in the darkness many displaced Christians in Iraq still live in—the first Christian families are returning to their recently liberated villages on the Nineveh Plain. We visited some of these pioneers in the village of Telskuf. Without electricity and water but happier than ever, sisters Nidal and Janan are home at last. “We believe in Christ. He will help us through this period. He keeps us strong.”
The streets in Telskuf are empty and quiet. Some of the abandoned houses are riddled with bullet holes; others seem to have survived the war without much damage. This is one of the Christian villages where the Islamic fighters of IS were expelled relatively easily. It is different here than in the neighboring town of Batnaya which is a war zone. That town was shelled and bombed so heavily that ninety percent of the houses have been destroyed.
For a few days now, the sounds of marching boots and rolling tanks no longer fill the streets of Telskuf. Whoever listens carefully can hear children laughing again as they play in a secluded garden, or the sounds of a teenager practicing football. The first Christians are returning to this deserted village that was once bustling with life and inhabited by hundreds of Christian families. This is a promise for the future.
We visit sisters Nidal and Janan with their six children. They moved back just a few days ago. Their house was raided and ransacked, but at least they can live here. Their husbands are out today, trying to find new jobs.
Nidal shares how IS chased her from her village in 2014. They have been living in the Kurdish town Dahuq ever since. “We had water and electricity there, but it was not home. This place doesn’t have all that, but it is home.”
She tells how, while living in displacement, she never felt truly happy. “I got more and more depressed. Even when there was a birthday or a wedding, I wouldn’t join the party. It felt wrong to celebrate.”
During their time in displacement, local partners of Open Doors provided Nidal’s family with food packages and emergency relief. “That kept us alive and hopeful and helped us to wait for better times. And look,” she points at her daughter playing a game on a phone in the corner of the room, “better times have come! Today I’m happier than ever. I’m home.”
A water truck stops at the house, filling some empty buckets with fresh water the family can use to clean, wash and cook. IS demolished the infrastructure in the villages, so until the power lines and the water pipes have been repaired, returnees depend on generators and trucks like these to provide them with the basics necessities to live.
Many Christian families have migrated to Western countries since 2014. Did Nidal think about leaving Iraq as well? She doesn’t have to think long before answering that question. “La!” she says firmly, using the Arabic word for ‘no’. “We belong here. No way am I leaving this country. That is why we chose to return here as soon as we could—to show others it is possible, to set an example, and to motivate those who might be in doubt. By returning here we also give hope to our children, we show the new generation that they have a future in Iraq.”
Nidal thanks God that He saved her family. “Life is not easy here, there is no school for the children. My brother-in-law has to drive them to a village 15 minutes away from here every day. But the good news is that life goes on. Every day is new; we believe in Christ. He will help us through this period, He keeps us strong.”
Visiting the liberated villages of Telskuf and Batnya with Father Gabriel, a local church and community leader, is a story of both hope and despair. Gabriel is head of the monastery in the Christian village of Al Qosh, just outside the area that was conquered by IS. He lived on the front line for years.
On the one hand, he thanks God that many Christians are safe now and are dreaming of returning home. “But the truth is that many of them gave up hope,” he says.
That is the other side of this story. While visiting the completely destroyed village of Batnaya, he shares some staggering numbers: “There were 750 Christian families living here when IS came. Four hundred of them already left the country. The rest will have huge problems returning here. Look around you, everything is destroyed.”
According to local Christians, Batnya is the most destroyed village on the Nineveh Plain since IS dug itself in here and was shelled and bombed for days by the allied forces.
And then there is the matter of the Christians’ security. Father Gabriel warns not to expect things to return to normal now that IS is gone. “The liberation was just step one. The next step should be the protection of Christians. We can’t do that ourselves; we need the help of the rest of the world. Like when Europe in the 20th century needed the help of the world to cast out evil and to liberate and protect people, in the same way this region needs international protection now. IS may have been defeated, IS’s ideas are still very much alive.”
It is Father Gabriel’s prayer that, one day, the Nineveh Plain will be safe for Christians again. “We hope that the church then will be able to reunite its members worldwide, and that we can bring back those who travelled abroad to be one Body again here in Iraq.”