The Karamlesh village meeting begins the traditional way, with
Christian prayers led by a priest, murmured and sung, lingering in the
But the meeting's not in the actual village of
Karamlesh. It's 40 miles away in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, on
red plastic chairs under a dust-yellow sky, next to the corrugated
trailers some of these people have been living in since 2014 when the
Islamic State took their village.
Karamlesh is one of a cluster
of Christian villages nestled in the Nineveh plain, in northern Iraq
near Mosul. Some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world are
A little over two years ago, ISIS poured into those villages and the
people fled. Now, as Iraqi forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition press
an offensive against ISIS in Mosul, ISIS fighters have been pushed from
So, the people of Karamlesh gathered to discuss
what to do now. At the front of the meeting stood a stark metal cross
with a white ribbon on it and a black one.
With a flourish, the
priest, Boulos Thabet Habib, removed the black ribbon, celebrating the
liberation. Applause broke out, and smiles.
Then, Habib began
to speak. He sketched out a bright future for the village, outlining
plans for repairing the houses damaged by fighting, filling in ISIS
But people seemed torn. After the meeting, Maha al
Kahwaji, a woman with bright red hair, became animated as she spoke
"I adore my village. I adore it," she said. As ISIS approached, she
insisted on staying in the church, and refused to leave initially.
Eventually she was forced to flee, and has been living in Erbil more than two years, longing for home.
to return is difficult," she said. "It's not just difficult, with the
tunnels, the burning of homes and the destruction, it's impossible."
priest may say lovely things; he dreams and we all dream too, she
explained. But she is unconvinced the plan is anything more than a
dream. She wants to go back, but every week a family from Karamlesh
leaves Iraq, seeking asylum elsewhere, she said.
Her dilemma is shared by tens of thousands of people – Christians and other minorities – targeted and displaced by ISIS.
are happy the group's brutal stranglehold is over, but are put off
going home by the destruction of their homes, a mistrust of Iraq's
security forces and a fear that the Sunni Muslims in their area
collaborated with ISIS.
One businessman from Karamlesh, Taher Bahoo, is determined to return the village to life.
We went there together, turning off the road to Mosul a few miles
before the front line, explaining to the Iraqi army soldiers at the
checkpoints that we were with a resident of the village.
difference from the village I saw on an earlier visit, in 2014, before
ISIS wrought their havoc, was striking. In front of the first church, at
the entrance to the town, were singed patches of earth where a flower
garden used to be. A soldier's uniform was drying on an improvised
washing line. Another was being laundered in the baptismal font.
Bahoo led the way into the church building, pointing out numerous
tunnels ISIS had built – well over six feet high. Some of them are so
long no one is quite sure where they end up. One slopes uphill and comes
out at a viewpoint used by a sniper.
Bahoo looked out from the
viewpoint over the village at charred wrecks of houses and cars,
streets full of shrapnel. The only people visible are the security
"When I was just 5, 6, 7 years age, we were playing
here," he said. "It was peaceful. It's difficult - very difficult - to
imagine what happened here."
Going further into the village, Bahoo and I walked past little
stores full of remnants of explosives, ancient graveyards and
monasteries that are damaged or destroyed.
"Looks like, I don't know – another place," he said quietly.
destruction is the first obstacle for those trying to persuade
Christians to come back. But the only other civilian we met, teacher
Khalid Yaako Touma, salvaging family photos from his ruined house, said
other factors were also important.
"This is all the fault of
the government," he said. On the day ISIS came to Karamlesh, the Iraqi
army and the ethnic Kurdish Iraqi forces known as peshmerga both melted
away, he said.
A lot of villagers also say that they're
frightened of Muslims who live in the area. They believe, although it's
not at all accurate, that those Muslims all joined ISIS.
In another mainly Christian village close by, Qaraqosh, a retired
army general, Behnam Abbush, said he believed he has an answer to this
"They must put the security in the hand of the people of
this land – that's what I want," said the white-haired man. He leads a
Christian militia called the Nineveh Protection Units, currently working
alongside the Iraqi army but pushing to be the holding force here.
thinks Christians will come back to these villages if they know their
own people are keeping them safe. His group claims to have thousands of
men ready for the task.
As he spoke, an elderly shepherd with about a dozen sheep walked down the abandoned street.
"Who is he? Where's he from?" the general shouted to his men.
They stopped the shepherd for questions and Behnam said Muslims shouldn't even walk through the streets here for the moment.
"Because this is Christian village, 95 percent this is Christian," he said.
In Karamlesh, the businessman, Bahoo took a detour into his family house.
my life I was here," he murmured as we rounded the corner. The orange
and olive trees in the garden are overgrown, and the house is ransacked.
But it is salvageable. He doesn't want his parents to see it yet.
"It's better to keep them far away until we just clean everything and repair everything," he said.
went inside to dig out the family photo albums from the mess ISIS left
behind, leafed through pictures of his father in military uniform in the
1960s, family holidays, first holy communion.
One album, meant
for wedding pictures, has a little music box built in. It played the
wedding march, tinkly and sweet, as Bahoo sat on the sidewalk, deep in
the memories, oblivious for a moment to the scorched devastation of the
deserted little village.