I have just returned from a week-long fact-finding mission to Mosul and Christian towns in Northern Iraq, to assess the status of U.S.-led reconstruction efforts after the battle to defeat ISIS.
During that time, I met with hundreds of local residents who returned to find their homes burned and looted by ISIS, or bombed into rubble by coalition airstrikes. I met with scores of church leaders and aide groups who are coordinating reconstruction efforts, and with Iraqi and U.S. government officials.
Nineveh was proselytized by St. Thomas in the first century AD. Many of the churches still conduct mass in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. These communities are among the oldest, continuously inhabited Christian centers in the world. As Christians living in the West, this is our homeland, as well. These are our people.
The physical destruction I witnessed can only be called Biblical, with 4th century churches and monasteries in Western Mosul reduced to heaps of rubble and stone. Some of the surrounding Christian villages remain uninhabited to this day. Others are gradually struggling to rebuild.
Fewer than half of the Christian families who lived in the Nineveh Plain surrounding Mosul to the north and east have returned. Many of them live with traumas hard to imagine for ordinary Americans. Some lost children, physically ripped from their arms by barbaric ISIS fighters and sold into sex slavery. Most of them lost their homes, their jobs, and their possessions.
Christians throughout the world should care about their fate, because this is where Christianity began.
82-year old Hannah stayed behind when ISIS swept into Telescof, a Christian village north of Mosul. "I never saw ISIS. I don't know what is ISIS," she told us. "I only saw local Arabs, our neighbors."
Hannah was lucky: the Muslim fighters who seized her village and held it for eight days gave her food and water and let her live. Simply put, she was too old to be sold as a sex slave.
While Telescof changed hands several times between ISIS and the Kurdish peshmerga until it was finally liberated last year, local residents are still hesitant to return even though much of the town has been rebuilt with funds from the Chaldean Church and the Hungarian government.
"More than 1000 families have returned," says Father Salar Boudagh, the local Chaldean priest. "But most of them came from other places. Of the 1500 Christian families here before ISIS, just 650 have returned."
The reason? "The Arabs never really left," says Father Salar. "They just shaved their beards and joined Hasht-e Shabi," the Iraqi government-backed Muslim militias who roam the area, often terrorizing the population in the name of restoring security.
Another problem has been the attitude of the Kurds. ISIS occupied Telescof for only eight days at the beginning of its sweep across the Nineveh Plain in August 2014. "The Kurdish peshmerga liberated the town, but wouldn't allow our people to return," Father Salar says. "They turned Telescof into a military base for more than two years. They wouldn't even let people come to get furniture or identity papers."
When Father Salar returned in 2017, his church had been burned and the town had been looted. There was no water or electricity. "ISIS did little damage to the church or to the town," he says. "The Kurds initially said that local Arabs did the looting. We complained to the Kurdish military, and to President Barzani. They admitted in the end that they were responsible for the looting, but said they couldn't control their soldiers."
Another problem slowing reconstruction efforts has been access. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has occupied much of the predominantly Christian Nineveh Plain since 2004 in the name of maintaining security, has cut the direct roads connecting these villages to Mosul and Qaraqosh, the main commercial centers.
When I drove the twenty-odd miles to Telescof last week from Qaraqosh, we had to make a two-hour detour through KRG territory because Kurdish peshmerga still refused to lift checkpoints isolating these villages.
Jamil Francis is a 55-year old doctor who lives in Telescof and has a clinic in Tel Keif, a couple of miles to the south. He also works in a hospital in Mosul, a few miles further on. "For the past five years, I have been unable to reach my job at the hospital or even visit my clinic, even though Tel Keif is just next door, because of the Kurdish checkpoints," he says.
Those checkpoints were finally lifted on Sunday, October 21, thanks to an intense lobbying campaign by top U.S. officials, including the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad and Vice President Mike Pence.
"We are taking a whole-of-government approach," said Max Primorac, the special representative for reconstruction in minority areas of Iraq for U.S. AID. "Our goal is to support the return of these communities and to leverage U.S. power to bring back investment, security, and jobs.
"Something specific happened here. It's called genocide. It requires a specific response," he said.
That translates into fast-tracking U.S. government aid for "livehood" projects that bring jobs to Christian and Yazidi communities traumatized by the ISIS occupation, and acting as the convening authority for other donors to ensure that aid projects get off the ground quickly, meet local needs, and are not duplicative. "We want to change the calculus of return," Primorac said.
Security is no longer a problem in Mosul itself. "Mosul, today, is safer than any other city in Iraq," said Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jabouri, commander of joint anti-ISIS operations. "More than 300,000 people celebrated New Year 2018 in the streets of Mosul until 3 o'clock in the morning. Things have changed in the mind of the people. They won't grant safe haven to ISIS again."
While some ISIS stay-behind cells remain, especially in the desert, the main security threats today to the Yazidi and Christian populations come from the Kurdish and Shiite militias who ostensibly are supposed to protect them.
Bartella is a smaller town east of Mosul that was home to 3,500 predominantly Christian families before the ISIS occupation. Just 35% of them have returned. Two things have affected the lower late of return: a lack of rebuilding funds from the Nineveh Reconstruction Council, which some believe stems form the fact that Bartella is Syrian Catholic whereas the Council is run by Chaldeans; and the presence of Shiite Muslim militias.
Merved, 32, is originally from Bartella but today lives in a refugee camp run by the Assyrian Aid Society near Dohuk in the KRG. She lost two sisters, and two other family members to ISIS barbarity. When asked if she was ready to take her four young children back to Bartella, she shook her head violently. "I am afraid of the Shabak militias," she said.
Christians entering Bartella are met with the black flags of the Shabak militias and a portrait of Ali, the 4th Caliph of Islam revered by Shiites. The Iranian Consul General recently paid a visit to inaugurate a Shiite elementary school. Posters advertizing the school in downtown Bartella bear the photo of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
"To us, these things are the same as ISIS. They use almost the same black flag," said Father Behnam Benoka, 39, the Syrian Catholic parish priest.
"The dream of the Shabak is to make Bartella and the Nineveh plain a land for the Shabak. We cannot accept this," he said.
For two centuries, Shabak primarily lived in villages on the outskirts of the Christian towns. Then in 2003-2004, the U.S. commander for Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus, resettled 2,000 Shabak families from Mosul into Bartella, changing the demography.
Although the town is historically Christian, going back two thousand years, Bartella now has a Shiite mayor, a Shiite town council, and Shiite heads of government services.
And they are exercising that new-found power brazenly. The Shabak militia, Brigade 30 of the Popular Mobilization Forces, stormed a health clinic built and operated by Samaritan's Purse last year and simply confiscated it. "They took it over! So now it is a base for them," Father Benoka said.
"I am sounding the alarm," he warned. "If there is no solution to the Shabak problem, Christians will be gone."
While acknowledging that his men had committed "provocations" against Christians, the head of Brigade 30, Wael al-Qado, insisted that his goal was for the two communities to live peacefully side-by-side.
"Have we played a role in driving Christians from this area? Have we kidnapped Christians? Have we confiscated land? Done harm?" al-Qado said in a rare interview. "We are against raising the black flag in Christian towns. At the same time, Christians can't ignore the rights of Shabaks to practice our rituals. But of course, not at the expense of the Christians."
Christian leaders have asked Qado to take down the black flags and to remove loud speakers from minarets in Christian neighborhoods that were broadcasting the pre-dawn call to prayer, all of them triggers of the trauma Christians underwent at the hands of ISIS. "As soon as a problem arises and they call me, I resolve it, even if I think it might be harmful to the Shabak. I want to send a message that we will do anything for peace," al-Qado said.
Despite his conciliatory statements, the black flags remain. As for the loud speakers, they have been moved from the mosque into the Brigade 30 base. "I can still hear them at 4 AM from my home," said Father Benoka.
The biggest prize of the Nineveh Plain is the provincial capital of Qaraqosh, also known as Baghdeda. By far the largest Christian town, it was home to over 11,000 Christian families before the ISIS invasion, nearly 60,000 people. Today, an estimated 25,650 have returned, less than half.
As with Bartella, Christian leaders fear encroachment by the Shabak. "This is why we are encouraging people to return," said William Warda, founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO), one of the main Iraq-based aid and advocacy groups working on behalf of Christians and other minorities.
"We have only five Christian seats on the Hamdaniya regional governing council out of twenty," said Luis Markos Ayoub, one of those Christian councilmen. "Shabak and Kurds dominate. So they are able to name their people to administrative positions. They even named a Shia from Basra as Dean of Hamdaniya University. This was our project! We proposed it. We got the church to donate land. And now, it has been taken away from us."
The whole reason Ayoub and HHRO worked to establish a regional university in the Nineveh Plain was that jihadi terror groups were attacking Christian students traveling to nearby Mosul University to attend class. I met a beautiful 20-year old young woman who lost her left leg in one such attack on an earlier trip to the region a few years ago, and have written about the climate in this area in ISIS Begins: A Novel of the Iraq war.
Wealthy Shabak families now are trying to buy up land in the center of Qaraqosh. "They have started a bidding war," said Syrian Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mosheh. "The normal price in this area is $1200 for a 2000 square foot lot. They are offering almost two hundred times that for land right across from our seminary. If they succeed, you can bet they will use it to build a mosque."
Despite the challenges, Qaraqosh is coming back. Shops are open, the streets are packed with cars and people, and at night the town is alive with bright lights, restaurants, and shops. Even the liquor stores have returned.
Wissam Gedjo, 42, returned after the liberation in late 2017 to find his toy store in ruins. "ISIS set everything on fire," he says, showing pictures of the devastation. "They even took the floor tiles!" All that survived was a group of painted Easter eggs, miraculously intact amid the rubble.
"This is how I found it on Oct. 1, 2017, when I returned. But I rebuilt this shop and reopened for business that Christmas."
Yohanna Yosif, 54, a prominent businessman, is rebuilding his chicken farms and cattle ranch and encouraging others to do the same. National Police Brig. General Faris Abdulahad Zaket has nearly finished rebuilding his burnt-out house, and has three fresh bedrooms upstairs he hopes will soon host grandchildren.
Reminders of the ISIS occupation can still be seen in bombed out houses, many of them with ISIS members still buried beneath slabs of collapsed concrete inside.
Everyone believes this area is on the verge of a tipping point: a bit more aide, a bit more reconstruction, and more people will come back. But a renewal of jihadi violence -- from Shabak militias or ISIS -- and they will flee.
In an upcoming report, I will detail the extraordinary efforts by U.S. AID, following the directive of Vice President Mike Pence, to tip the scales in favor of return.