The Isis men are now dug in a mile away from Bakufa. On a field radio
we can hear one of the fighters loudly demanding in Arabic that
somebody bring him some drinking water. “We also hear them talking in
Turkish and English,” says Sergon. “But, going by their accents, we
think those speaking English are Chechens and Afghans, who don’t have a
The Christians of Nineveh Plain around Mosul, who lived here for
1,800 years, have become refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey,
Lebanon or further afield. “I wish they would come back,” says Peshmerga
General Wahid Majid Mohammed, commander of 420 soldiers on this section
of the front, somewhat unrealistically. “It is 75 per cent safe here,”
he says, which is hardly reassuring, particularly when he adds that
there is no electricity or drinking water in Bakufa. As we speak, he
twice sends out patrols to assess the damage caused by the latest US air
strikes, which take place several times a day.
At one end of the
large room where Sergon and his men are sitting with their ageing
weaponry, there is a large Assyrian flag. “Once, we Assyrians were a
great empire,” says one of the fighters, as if seeking solace in the
distant past for present weakness. Aside from their lack of weapons, the
militiamen have only one vehicle, no electric generator and depend on the Kurdish
Peshmerga for food. Overall, the meagre resources of the so-called
Dweekh Newsha militia, 300-strong and founded last August to show that
Iraqi Christians can defend themselves, only emphasises their
vulnerability in the face of thousands of well-equipped Isis fighters.
Some of these fighters are just down the road and we can see the top
of a building in the village of Batnaya, where they are concentrated.
General Mohammed, who has spent 23 of his 44 years in the Peshmerga,
gives an account of Isis dispositions in Batnaya. He says their forces
there are a mixture of foreigners and Iraqis. “The foreigners are about
60-strong and don’t move out of the village much,” he says. “There are
about 40 or 50 Iraqi fighters, but they move in and out of Batnaya.”
general says that most of the foreign fighters come from Arab
countries, while the Iraqis are mainly from three powerful Sunni Arab
tribes living close to Mosul. The number of Isis men on this section of
the front between Mosul and the Kurdish city of Dohuk is variable, as
Isis can always bring in reinforcements from Mosul city itself.
Since the fighting during Isis’s offensive last August, there has been
near stalemate on this section of the front. The Peshmerga regained
Bakufa and Tel Eskoff, a small Assyrian Christian town nearby that was
once home to 10,000 people, but is now deserted. Most people here were
farmers and the fields are a vivid green after the rains, but nobody is
tending them. There are pieces of rusting farm machinery beside the
road. But the stalemate is not complete: General Mohammed says that his
brother, Colonel Akram Majid Mohammed, also a commander in the
Peshmerga, had been killed by a mortar shell at a nearby petrol station
in September. There has been no heavy fighting for the past two months
though Isis mortar fire and US air strikes happen every day.
Gen Mohammed is sceptical about claims last week by the Iraqi Prime
Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the US Central Command that an Iraqi Army
force of between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers is going to march up the
Tigris river, taking Isis-held towns and cities on the way and then
capturing Mosul. “They are just statements, the plan is not really
credible,” he says and goes on itemise his own lack of heavy equipment
and dependence on light infantry arms such as “AKs [Kalashnikovs], PKCs
[light machine guns], RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers], two
Dushkas [heavy machine guns] and a single 82mm mortar”. The US on Friday
admitted it has trained only a fraction of the required troops, despite
earlier suggesting the offensive might be as early as April.
On the other hand, Gen Mohammed can contact the US-Kurdish joint
operational centre in Irbil with precise coordinates of Isis positions
in order to call in US air strikes. He said that earlier that morning
his men had heard Isis fighters on their field radios trying to work out
if one of their men, who had gone missing, had been killed by US
None of this is good news for the Christians. The longer they are
away from their old heartlands in and around Mosul, the less likely it
is that they will ever return. The houses in Bakufa and Tel Eskoff are
intact, but they have all been looted by Peshmerga as well Isis.
see their furniture for sale in the markets of Dohuk and Irbil [inside
Iraqi Kurdistan] as well as in Isis-held places,” says Johanna Towaya, a
Christian community leader from Syrian Catholic town of Qaraqosh on the
outskirts of Mosul. He adds that the very last Christian in Mosul left
in the past few weeks, driven out by persecution and fear of execution.
Like General Mohammed, he is not optimistic about an Iraqi Army
counterattack recapturing Mosul: “The Iraqi Army takes some villages and
two days later Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for Isis] takes them back.”
day, though perhaps not for many months, there will be another battle
for Mosul and the present frontline running through Bakufa will change.
At that time, many of the 1.5 million people remaining in Mosul may
themselves become refugees and aid agencies are already preparing to for
a mass exodus: Iraq is becoming a land of exiles.