By NBC News
Carlo Angerer, September 10, 2014
Sunni militants in northern Iraq gave Christians a zero-sum ultimatum: Convert to Islam or die.
For at least one family
in Qaraqosh, a city once considered the "Christian capital of Iraq,"
escape came before it had to choose.
"Thank God that we're
here in safety," the Christian man, who asked not to be identified for
his safety, said just days after he and his family fled the bloody rule
of Islamic State fighters. They have taken shelter in Erbil, a city of
1.5 million that has become a safe haven for religious minorities who have escaped the brutal Sunni insurgents.
Qaraqosh, once a town of 40,000, has
been terrorized by ISIS fighters amassing power and laying down harsh
Sharia law. The man said he saw militants lash a fellow Christian with a
water hose 20 times just for smoking a cigarette. He and his family
lived in constant terror, feeling they were always being watched.
"Sometimes, you would not see any fighters — and within minutes, the street was full of them," he said. "We were always afraid."
Just weeks after the
town fell to ISIS fighters, only a few dozen Christians remain in
Qaraqosh and streets are now deserted, the man told NBC News. "Maybe
only 50 to 75 Christian people, most of them elderly, are there, unable
to flee," he said, adding that he and many others realized too late that
ISIS fighters were there to stay.
U.S. airstrikes and
military support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces may have temporarily
stunted the terrifying rise of ISIS militants — but in recent weeks,
they have tightened their grip on several towns and villages in northern
Iraq, according to interviews with several eyewitnesses.
Eyewitnesses in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the largest Iraqi city currently under ISIS control,
told NBC News in phone interviews that insurgents there have committed
atrocities. They said several women were executed after an Islamic court
found them guilty of committing adultery and that at least seven men
were killed because they spoke out publicly against the tyranny of ISIS.
These horrifying stories
are just the latest accounts of ISIS’ barbarism. The militant group has
been accused of massacring countless civilians and takes responsibility
for the beheadings of two American journalists, Jamey Foley and Steven
A copy of an exam
schedule at a local college of medicine obtained by NBC News is headed
with “The Islamic State” in bold font and bears the logo of ISIS.
Underneath it lists the various subjects including physics, chemistry,
and surgery and the statement “we pray for you to you succeed and excel
in this life and the afterlife."
Locals told NBC News
that many Sunnis at first accepted the reign of ISIS because it had
stunted the sectarian violence in Mosul, for which they blamed Shiite
militias and the Shiite-controlled central government.
“We have not lived in peace before
the way we do now,” one man, who identified himself as Mohammed, said.
“It is true that the elements of Islamic State sometimes behave in a
weird way, but still we are happy because people have not been detained
by the government for nothing. There are no explosions of IEDs or car
It appears that ISIS has
been able to keep the city functional. Mohammed said that local markets
are filled with vegetables and fruit.
“Last month prices of
sugar, rice and flour went high, but this month these items were brought
in by local and Syrian tradesmen,” he said. “Now prices went down
Mohammed added that
hospitals are suffering from a lack of medical supplies but that
pharmacies are still stocked and the prices for medicine has stabilized.
Fred Abrahams, a special
advisor at Human Rights Watch, who is currently assessing the situation
in northern Iraq, said that many Sunnis turned to ISIS either actively
or by acceptance because of their hatred for the central government.
“The long record of
abuse of policy by the Iraqi government opened the door for ISIS to come
in with such speed,” he said. “Many Sunni tribes and people, who don’t
necessarily agree with all ISIS tactics, have accepted them.”
But support for ISIS among the Sunni population seems to be waning as they show their full brutality.
“The people in Mosul
have changed their view toward ISIS after discovering the real face of
those who claim that are Muslims,” one local journalist said adding that
many locals are turned away by the many executions enforced through the
Islamic courts that ISIS has established.
A local political
analyst, who continues to live in Mosul, said that behavior and actions
of ISIS militants, especially the destruction of local mosques, have
turned the population against them.
“Now the people of Mosul are willing to be liberated from the tyranny of ISIS militants,” he said.