A member of the Iraqi army scrambles up the stairs of a heavily
damaged orthodox church in this old Christian town. He tugs at a rope,
causing the bells above to ring out – bells which had remained dormant
for the two years and three months of the Islamic State's reign.
a small Christian town that is 2,000 years old, holds a special place
in the hearts of most Middle Eastern Christians. It suffered greatly
under the grip of IS, whose treatment of Christians has been widely
documented - enslavement, ethnic cleansing and murder among their crimes
It is once again under the control of a
government that promises religious freedoms. Christian militias were
involved in its recapture, as were Shia and Kurdish forces.
believe with any confidence that Bartella and its surrounding villages
have been fully liberated would be premature to say the least, and
As they entered the church's vestibule, the Iraqi soldier's comrades
yelled for everyone to duck, as bullets whistled and cracked above their
It seems Islamic State fighters refuse to acknowledge
their defeat. Most of the IS contingent had pulled out, but snipers and
suicide squads are often left behind to prowl the battlefields. These
men clearly had no intention of going back.
The countryside east
of Mosul, and certainly the town of Bartella as well, are riddled with
IS tunnels - where militants can seemingly emerge at any time to deal
Over the course of its nearly 28-month reign, IS managed to
thoroughly ransack Bartella. A large portion of the Christian town has
been mined. The Iraqi soldiers fear that, despite an intensive clean-up,
a number of explosive devices may have remained in place.
soldiers, however, seemed unconcerned about the incoming fire, or the
potential for booby traps. Instead, they rushed in where angels had for
months feared to tread - taking photographs, dance and ringing the bells
They had the look of men who had been through so
much worse. For at least some of the younger ones, the war is virtually
the only thing life has had to offer so far.
The orthodox church in Bartella was heavily damaged during the reign of IS.
of its walls and eaves were burned, and the church tower and main gate
wrecked. A statue sits on a plinth with most of its head removed - due
to IS rulings on idolatry or during battle, it is difficult to say.
church's interior is dusty and scarred, its once-ornate windows smashed
and its walls desecrated with IS graffiti. The rooms have been stripped
of all their worth.
When Father John, a grey-haired orthodox priest, returned to his home
town last Sunday morning, accompanied by Iraqi soldiers and some of the
faithful, he was quick to notice how many things were missing,
especially books and documents.
Before leaving, the father took
with him most of what had been left behind - just in case. In one of his
rooms, he had somehow overlooked a painting of the Last Supper. An
Iraqi army recruit picked it up and moved it somewhere safe.
militants have also desecrated the local cemetery. Most of the antique
and medieval artefacts were destroyed. From the look of things, the
oldest houses got the worst of it.
Three days after its official
liberation, Bartella looked like some Normandy village on a grey and
dusty summer day in 1944. Rubble lay wherever people dared to walk.
the church is far from a haven of peace. A mere 200m from the church,
Iraqi soldiers set up heavy artillery to pummel nearby IS positions.
Officers yelled, smoke billowed and planes roared overhead.
“The battle was hard. The dangers are still everywhere. We are still
fighting in nearby town of Hamdaniya. Booby-traps are everywhere.
Suicide attacks can happen at any time,” said Ahmed Buhari, an officer
in the elite Golden Brigade, who fought and defeated IS in Ramadi and
Bartella has mostly been stripped of civilians. Most
residents had long fled the city, and so far, only about a dozen have
returned. None were to be found inside the town, but dozens of civilians
were seen fleeing the front line in trucks, crammed with all kinds of
possessions, heading for Erbil and refugee camps.
And not only because of what you can see in Bartella.
the wider surrounding area, the devastation is even worse. Coalition
bombing, Kurdish artillery and the "defensive" action of the Islamic
State have razed a large chunk of the eastern front to the ground.
used to be exceptionally fertile fields on the Nineveh plains have all
turned to dust, untilled by human hand for at least two years. The roads
are riddled with bomb craters. The factories have been turned to little
more than dust and rubble. Even the birds have flown away.
Here in this place, not only the past is dying. Here – in present tense – the future is dying as well.