Three years after self-proclaimed Islamic State took over the villages and towns of the Nineveh Plain in Iraq, the first Christian inhabitants are returning home.
On two very hot days in August, we visited three of the villages: Bashiqa, Qaraqosh and Karamles. The conclusion: life is back in the Nineveh Plain.
What strikes us is the hope the inhabitants and the church leaders have. “I am optimistic, yes, very optimistic,” says Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche. “When you look around in the villages, you see that life is back again.”
Driving around we see the proof. A young boy on his little bike, for example, riding in the streets of Qaraqosh. In one of his hands is a small plastic bag with some bread. Or a text written on the wall in Bashiqa: “Tomorrow is more beautiful.” Behind the wall is a house that was set afire by ISIS just before they were driven out of the village. A faith for the future speaks out of these words.
We drive around with two staff members of our partner organization in Iraq. They see with their own eyes how effective the churches they support have been in their work on the Nineveh Plain. Of course there are ‘thank you’s’ for them at all places they visit during the two days.
The return of Christians is seen most noticeably in the city of Qaraqosh. About 1,500 families have returned, which means over 20% of the total Christian population before ISIS came. Maybe that has a lot to do with the inspiring and very organized priest Father George. “Our team is going fast,” he says with a big smile on his face. “About fifty people a day come to register at our center to have their homes restored. More will come.”
In this busy center where the restoration of houses is coordinated, he explains how the committee first did research of all 6,936 houses and apartments in Qaraqosh, or Baghdeda as most inhabitants like to call the town. In the whole Nineveh Plain, the church committees use the same categories to label the destruction of the houses. “Level C means that the house is damaged but that it easily can be repaired with $5,000 or less. Level B are the houses that are fully burned from the inside or are more damaged in other ways. Level A means that a house is fully destroyed, collapsed because of a bomb for example. In Qaraqosh, we have 4,774 C, 2,046 B and 116 A.”
He shows the report that the committee made of some of the houses. They clearly did their research thoroughly. Every broken door, every broken window or hole in the wall is described. So when the owner of the house wants to return to live in Qaraqosh, the committee knows the estimate of the money needed to repair the house. When approved, the family gets the money and is responsible for arranging the repairs. In the center is a list of all available construction workers, electricians, plumbers and painters they could contact. When the house is finished, the families need to bring official receipts to the church to prove how the money has been used and to pay back the rest that wasn’t used.
We see how the center of Encouragement and Support in Bashiqa is functioning. A part of a building attached to a church in that place serves as space where the committee for rebuilding the houses has its seat and meetings. There is also a room where the priests receive the members of their church for counseling and conversations. The center gives space to citizens to sleep overnight while, during the daytime, they are working to restore their homes.
“The first 52 houses have been restored with your support,” Father Poulos says. He is one of the priests in Bashiqa. “We will now start with another 30 houses.” With him, we walk through the streets of the village. The first house he points at is freshly painted blue. “We did the outside with our own money,” the man of the house tells. Then he shows us what was done with the money they received via our partner organization through the church committee. We pass by ten new doors, all doors had been destroyed by the fighters of ISIS who stayed in the house for two years. He points at the windows that were replaced and to some parts of the electrical system of the house.
We enter another house in Bashiqa, in front of it – a wrecked car. “This was a new house when ISIS came, we only lived here six months when we had to flee to Dohuk. I worked for four months to get the house ready again. We were the first family to return here. During the time, I worked in the house, I slept the nights in the center of the church. Many families stay there while they work during daytime.” Two of his neighbors also returned. “One is a Muslim family, the other a Yazidi. Before the war, we lived in peace together, it’s a quiet place.” Since about three months ago, he, his wife, two daughters and one son moved back to the house.”
Although we did see the referendum that supports Kurdish independence pass a few weeks ago, we are uncertain if this hopeful peace will continue. We do not know, but we do know that God is in control. Please join us to pray for Iraq today.