ISIS Is Gone, But Iraqi Christians Are Wary Of Returning Home

Nov 12, 2016
Originally published on November 12, 2016 11:01 am

The Karamlesh village meeting begins the traditional way, with Christian prayers led by a priest, murmured and sung, lingering in the evening air.

But the meeting's not in the actual village of Karamlesh. It's 40 miles away in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, on red plastic chairs under a dust-yellow sky, next to the corrugated trailers some of these people have been living in since 2014 when the Islamic State took their village.

Karamlesh is one of a cluster of Christian villages nestled in the Nineveh plain, in northern Iraq near Mosul. Some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world are there.

A little over two years ago, ISIS poured into those villages and the people fled. Now, as Iraqi forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition press an offensive against ISIS in Mosul, ISIS fighters have been pushed from the villages.

So, the people of Karamlesh gathered to discuss what to do now. At the front of the meeting stood a stark metal cross with a white ribbon on it and a black one.

With a flourish, the priest, Boulos Thabet Habib, removed the black ribbon, celebrating the liberation. Applause broke out, and smiles.

Then, Habib began to speak. He sketched out a bright future for the village, outlining plans for repairing the houses damaged by fighting, filling in ISIS tunnels.

But people seemed torn. After the meeting, Maha al Kahwaji, a woman with bright red hair, became animated as she spoke about Karamlesh

"I adore my village. I adore it," she said. As ISIS approached, she insisted on staying in the church, and refused to leave initially.

Eventually she was forced to flee, and has been living in Erbil more than two years, longing for home.

"But to return is difficult," she said. "It's not just difficult, with the tunnels, the burning of homes and the destruction, it's impossible."

The priest may say lovely things; he dreams and we all dream too, she explained. But she is unconvinced the plan is anything more than a dream. She wants to go back, but every week a family from Karamlesh leaves Iraq, seeking asylum elsewhere, she said.

Her dilemma is shared by tens of thousands of people – Christians and other minorities – targeted and displaced by ISIS.

They are happy the group's brutal stranglehold is over, but are put off going home by the destruction of their homes, a mistrust of Iraq's security forces and a fear that the Sunni Muslims in their area collaborated with ISIS.

One businessman from Karamlesh, Taher Bahoo, is determined to return the village to life.

We went there together, turning off the road to Mosul a few miles before the front line, explaining to the Iraqi army soldiers at the checkpoints that we were with a resident of the village.

The difference from the village I saw on an earlier visit, in 2014, before ISIS wrought their havoc, was striking. In front of the first church, at the entrance to the town, were singed patches of earth where a flower garden used to be. A soldier's uniform was drying on an improvised washing line. Another was being laundered in the baptismal font.

Bahoo led the way into the church building, pointing out numerous tunnels ISIS had built – well over six feet high. Some of them are so long no one is quite sure where they end up. One slopes uphill and comes out at a viewpoint used by a sniper.

Bahoo looked out from the viewpoint over the village at charred wrecks of houses and cars, streets full of shrapnel. The only people visible are the security forces.

"When I was just 5, 6, 7 years age, we were playing here," he said. "It was peaceful. It's difficult - very difficult - to imagine what happened here."

Going further into the village, Bahoo and I walked past little stores full of remnants of explosives, ancient graveyards and monasteries that are damaged or destroyed.

"Looks like, I don't know – another place," he said quietly.

This destruction is the first obstacle for those trying to persuade Christians to come back. But the only other civilian we met, teacher Khalid Yaako Touma, salvaging family photos from his ruined house, said other factors were also important.

"This is all the fault of the government," he said. On the day ISIS came to Karamlesh, the Iraqi army and the ethnic Kurdish Iraqi forces known as peshmerga both melted away, he said.

A lot of villagers also say that they're frightened of Muslims who live in the area. They believe, although it's not at all accurate, that those Muslims all joined ISIS

In another mainly Christian village close by, Qaraqosh, a retired army general, Behnam Abbush, said he believed he has an answer to this fear.

"They must put the security in the hand of the people of this land – that's what I want," said the white-haired man. He leads a Christian militia called the Nineveh Protection Units, currently working alongside the Iraqi army but pushing to be the holding force here.

He thinks Christians will come back to these villages if they know their own people are keeping them safe. His group claims to have thousands of men ready for the task.

As he spoke, an elderly shepherd with about a dozen sheep walked down the abandoned street

"Who is he? Where's he from?" the general shouted to his men.

They stopped the shepherd for questions and Behnam said Muslims shouldn't even walk through the streets here for the moment.

"Because this is Christian village, 95 percent this is Christian," he said.

In Karamlesh, the businessman, Bahoo took a detour into his family house.

"All my life I was here," he murmured as we rounded the corner. The orange and olive trees in the garden are overgrown, and the house is ransacked. But it is salvageable. He doesn't want his parents to see it yet.

"It's better to keep them far away until we just clean everything and repair everything," he said.

He went inside to dig out the family photo albums from the mess ISIS left behind, leafed through pictures of his father in military uniform in the 1960s, family holidays, first holy communion.

One album, meant for wedding pictures, has a little music box built in. It played the wedding march, tinkly and sweet, as Bahoo sat on the sidewalk, deep in the memories, oblivious for a moment to the scorched devastation of the deserted little village.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the area around Mosul in northern Iraq, there's a cluster of Christian villages nestled in among the hills. A bit more than two years ago, ISIS poured into those villages, and the people fled. Those extremists have now been pushed out in the battle to retake the city. NPR's Alice Fordham asked some villagers what they'll do now.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The villagers meet the traditional way, with prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

FORDHAM: But the meeting's not in the village. It's in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil next to corrugated trailers some of these people have been living in since 2014, when ISIS took over their village called Karemlash.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

FORDHAM: At the front stands a stark, metal cross with a white ribbon on it and a black one.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: With a flourish, the priest removes the black ribbon, celebrating the liberation of Karemlash from ISIS. Then he begins to sketch out a bright future, talks about repairing the houses damaged by fighting, filling in ISIS' tunnels. But people seem unconvinced. After the meeting, I speak with Maha al Kahwaji. She adores Karemlash.

MAHA AL KAHWAJI: (Through interpreter) But to return is difficult. It's not just difficult with the tunnels, the burning of homes and the destruction. It's impossible.

FORDHAM: She says the priest is dreaming. Just before ISIS took Karemlash, I reported from there. And I met a businessman called Taher Bahoo. He is determined to restore the village to life. So we go back. It's deserted, apart from security forces, and shows signs of heavy fighting.

TAHER BAHOO: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: This area in the front of the church that used to be a garden full of flowers - it's just four singed patches of earth. Two of the little lampposts have got a washing line strung across with a soldier's uniform drying.

BAHOO: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: I follow Bahoo inside the church building.

BAHOO: So it's the first tunnel.

FORDHAM: The first tunnel?

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: So ISIS built tunnels underneath the church?

BAHOO: Yeah, yeah - many tunnels here. So one of them is, like - make it a base for the sniper.

FORDHAM: Snipers, yeah.

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: With Iraqi soldiers, we walked through the tunnel that opens on a hill, overlooking the charred houses and streets full of shrapnel that used to be a tidy village.

BAHOO: When I was just 5, 6, 7 years age - was playing here.

FORDHAM: The destruction isn't the only obstacle to people coming back, as we learn from the only other civilian here, teacher Khalid Yaako Touma, who is salvaging family photos from his ruined house.

KHALID YAAKO TOUMA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says this is all the fault of the government. All the security forces melted away when ISIS came. So he'll never trust them again. A lot of villagers say the same thing and also that they're frightened of Muslims who live in the area. They believe, although it's not at all accurate, that those Muslims all joined ISIS. In a village close by, I meet a man who thinks he has the answer to this.

BEHNAM ABBUSH: My name is Gen. Behnam Abbush.

FORDHAM: The white-haired Abbush is a retired army general and now leads a Christian militia. He says he can protect Christians if they come back.

ABBUSH: They must put the security in the hand of the people of this land. That's what I want.

FORDHAM: And as we talk, he yells at his men to question a shepherd walking down the street in case he's a Muslim.

ABBUSH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Behnam tells me Muslims shouldn't be here.

ABBUSH: Because this is a Christian village.

FORDHAM: Back in Karemlash, the businessman Taher Bahoo takes a detour into his family house.

BAHOO: All my life, I was here.

FORDHAM: The orange and olive trees in the garden are overgrown. And the house is ransacked. He doesn't want his parents to see it yet. He goes inside to dig out the family-photo albums from the mess ISIS left behind. He leafs through. One album meant for wedding pictures has a little music box built in.

BAHOO: I don't know if he's still working.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BOX)

FORDHAM: There's his father in the military in the '60s, school trips, first communion.

(LAUGHTER)

FORDHAM: Is that you?

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: (Laughter) You're, like - what? - 2.

He stays there a few minutes, lingering over the memories, sitting on the curb amid the fallen electricity wires, burned palm trees, bullet holes and the silence of the deserted little town. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Karemlash, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.