When Christians fled the small town of Bartalla in August 2014 as
Islamic State militants swept toward them, then-14-year-old Ibrahim
Matti and his elderly mother stayed behind. Without a car, they waited
on a relative who promised to return for them after ferrying his own
family to safety.
But by then, it was too late. Matti and his
mother, Jandark Nasi, both Assyrian Christians, spent more than two
years living under IS control in and around Mosul. They endured physical
violence, constant threats and intimidation, and forced conversion
before finally escaping as the Iraqi Army pushed into Mosul in recent
They are among just a handful of Christians who have so far
emerged from territory controlled by the self-declared Islamic State
amid the Iraqi offensive that has retaken parts of northern Iraq. The
historic heartland of Assyrian Christians in Iraq was part of the
territory seized by the militants in 2014, and nearly all fled in the
face of IS requirements: convert, pay a tax, or die. The ordeal of Matti
and Ms. Nasi offers a glimpse of what life was like for those unable to
Father Ammar Siman, priest of the St. George Syriac Catholic church in Bartalla, around 14 miles east
of Mosul, says around 100 Christians were missing from the Christian
villages around Mosul after August 2014. The relatives of many of the
missing fear they did not survive.
Fr. Siman fled to Erbil in 2014, and while he has been back to see the church, he says no one has moved back to the town yet.
are very happy to receive them alive,” he says of those who had
recently managed to escape. “Of course they need too much help. They’ve
suffered a lot.”
Stopped at a checkpoint
days after IS took Bartalla, Matti and his mother also tried to flee to
Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region where many
Christians had taken refuge. But militants stopped them at a checkpoint
and sent them to a detention center in Mosul, and then to one in
Bartalla. The prison was full of other Christians and Shiites, all of
whom were being beaten, he says. There, militants told the teenager he
must convert to Islam, urging him to say the Islamic profession of
“I said there is no God but Jesus,” he recalled recently.
militants then went to the next cell, where they were holding Shiite
Muslims, whom they consider heretics. Matti could hear as an IS member
demanded a man convert to Islam. “He didn’t accept, so they shot him in
the head. Then they took me to his cell, showed me his body, and told me
if you don’t convert to Islam, you will have the same fate,” he says.
“I was frightened. I was scared.”
When the militants again
demanded that the two recite the Islamic profession of faith, they
complied. “We said it. But it wasn’t coming from our hearts,” he says.
“I have strong faith, but with everything that happened, we were under
threats and pressure. When you say something that’s not from the bottom
of your heart, it’s not to be believed.”
Yet even that did not end
their torment. Over the next two years, as they were living on the
outskirts of Mosul and in the village of Bazwiya, IS militants regularly
visited the two to test their commitment to Islam.
memorize their prayers, so they were beating me,” says Matti. “They beat
my mother with sticks because she didn’t know how to pray.”
would torture them with needles if they answered questions incorrectly,
he says, and told him that if he missed three consecutive Fridays at
the mosque they would kill him. Whenever he didn’t go to the mosque,
they found and beat him, he says. He was forced to wear the short
trousers preferred by the militants, and to grow his beard.
mosque, Matti listened to the imam proclaim the rest of the world
infidels and urge residents to pledge obedience to the leader of IS and
participate in jihad. Over the two years, he says he often saw members
of IS who were not Iraqi. He also saw public executions, including the
stoning of a woman accused of adultery, when he visited a central Mosul
marketplace to buy food. But the two say that some Mosul residents
secretly helped them, risking the ire of IS members by giving them food
“I was always praying in my heart to Mary and
Jesus,” says Nasi. “I was praying in the bottom of my heart, and crying.
For the sake of my son, my gift from God.”
When the Iraqi Army
offensive reached the area they were living on the eastern outskirts of
Mosul, IS members gathered all the residents and forced them to retreat
into the city. From there, Matti and Nasi were able to flee to territory
taken by Iraqi forces.
Asked how it felt to finally be free,
Matti smiles for the first time in an hour and a half of talking. “I
still don’t believe it,” he says.
Receiving only love
While Matti and Nasi lived in and near
Mosul while under IS, two elderly Christian women stayed in the town of
Qaraqosh. Zarifa Baqous Daddo didn’t leave as all her neighbors fled the
IS onslaught in August 2014 because her sick husband wasn’t able. He
died after 15 days, and Ms. Daddo went to stay with another elderly
Christian couple who’d stayed behind.
But one day, the man went
out and never returned, she says, leaving the two frail women to spend
the remainder of the two years alone. Militants briefly took them to
Mosul before returning them to Qaraqosh and forcing them to recite the
Islamic profession of faith under threats of violence.
the militants didn’t beat them, possibly showing some deference to their
age, and regularly brought food and water to the house where the two
women remained. But they terrorized them, including with false reports
of territorial conquest.
“They were always telling us, you have no
relatives left, we have taken over Erbil, we have taken over
everything,” she says. Amid it all, she said she clung to her faith. “We
didn’t have anything but our prayers. This was the only thing we had to
Security forces found the pair after they pushed IS from the village.
Daddo, Matti, and Nasi say no one has blamed them for doing what they had to do to stay alive.
were visited by two priests, they told us not to worry about that,”
says Nasi. “They said ‘you don’t have to fear anything now, we are your
people, we are your family.’ ”
Siman, the priest from Bartalla,
said they would receive only love from God and the church. “I think they
were obligated to accept something they didn’t believe,” he says.“Do we
blame them? No.”
Matti, a quiet and slight teenager, and his
mother now live in a small room in a church-run center for displaced
people in Erbil. Rosaries hang on the wall above the two simple beds,
and the floor is covered by carpet scraps. A bare light bulb hangs from
the wall. After more than two years without television, they enjoy a
Bollywood film on a donated television – the pair are partial to Indian
and Egyptian films.
Now out from under the caliphate, Matti says
he wants to obtain medical care for his mother and to continue his
studies, which stopped at 8th grade. But both see a future that lies
outside of Iraq and their hometown.
“We spent two years [under
IS], two horrible years. We don’t want to go back,” says Nasi. “We want
to leave Iraq, to leave this pain.”