The Christian village of Tal Hemes, in the fertile fields of northern Syria, has been subject to an epic battle of tyranny and faith. According to mayor Oshana Elia, the nightmare began when Islamic State (IS) fighters began visiting the village to impose their extremist form of Islam. "They levied a tax on non-Muslims every day and ordered us to remove our crosses," he told 7.30. "They even spat on an old woman, who was over 70 years old, because she wasn't covering her face." When IS finally seized control in February, it set about destroying all symbols of the Christian faith. IS was eventually forced out of town by Christian militiamen like Abjr Nukhroyer, aided by US-led airstrikes. "When we first heard that they have removed the crosses and deformed the statues, we got very furious," Mr Nukhroyer said. "We felt they want to erase us and kill us all." Mr Elia wanders through the remains of his village, distraught. "Mariam, the Virgin Mary's statue was here," he sayss as he sifts through a pile of rubble. "I can't find the head, maybe they took the head." While IS has now been forced out, the group is still holding five locals hostage. "How would you feel?" Mr Elia asked. "Our families and honour were in the hands of IS, our churches ransacked and homes burned, how would anyone feel?" 'As far as we were concerned, it was the best civilisation' The sorrow at what happened here in Tal Hemes is also being felt half a world away, by Mr Elia's cousin, who fled in 2012 and found refuge in Melbourne. Shlimon Elia uprooted his family as the Syrian civil war was just beginning. "Some people talk about the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad," Mr Elia said. "But as far as we are concerned, it was the best civilisation. "It is an international game. It's not about freedom. We had freedom, and safety." The Elia family fled before IS was a major force, but gangs from neighbouring villages had already started kidnapping local businessmen for ransom. "People with masks on their faces came to my shop five or six times," he explained. "Once, a car pulled up, they opened the door, but I had a friend who had a gun on him and they thought he might be too much trouble." "That's what it was, fear of abduction," Samira, Shlimon's wife, said. "They wanted to abduct my husband and my kids, then ask for ransom." While they have set about rebuilding their lives, the Elia family can not escape the horror. "There are still hostages -- there's my female cousin and my male cousin from the village. They are still hostages," he said, wiping tears from his eyes. Family fears Syria is broken, 'all is gone' Back in Shlimon Elia's home in Tal Hemes, the extremists have scrawled anti-Christian graffiti on the walls. The house has been scarred by battle and every room has been looted and burned out. For the Elia family, seeing footage of these scenes is painful. "Oh, pity, pity," said Ms Elia, as she looked at pictures of the destroyed church. "We've known this church since childhood. It's so hard, this was our church since we were little." The attack on Assyrian culture has been widespread. IS made world headlines in April when it destroyed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq. But in dozens of little villages like Tal Hermes, the attack has also been on living communities. The Christian fighters here say they would rather die than see IS back in control. "It is a tragic feeling, threatening a whole religion and trying to wipe it out completely," Mr Nukhroyer said. In Melbourne, the Elia family, like many Syrians, fear the country they once knew is broken and they will never return. "We thought things would settle in six months and we would come back to our properties, our houses, our land," Mr Elia said. "We left everything behind. All is gone."
Assyrians Tell of Destruction and Abductions in Town Invaded By ISIS
By Matt Brown
Posted 2015-12-15 20:53 GMT