Now the smoke has gone from the Nineveh Plain, it is clear that Islamic
State fighters dealt one final, vicious blow to the Christian population
before surrendering its occupied towns: by systematically setting fire
to their homes, thousands have become practically uninhabitable.
Suddenly, for many Christians, the prospect of returning home seems
further away than ever before.
“This is it. Everything else is gone,” says one man, as, with a loud
bang, he slams shut the door of his car. The only things he has managed
to salvage from his house are a pile of books, a pair of shoes and some
We are in Ashti Camp in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. This man has just
returned from his home in Bartella, one of the recently liberated
Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain.
In the summer of 2014, IS fighters forced this Iraqi Christian and
his family to flee, leaving all their belongings behind. Over the past
two years, other families left Iraq, but his family stayed, dreaming of
one day returning to their beloved town. But now the dream has been
“Everything is gone. We have nothing left. Why should we stay in this
country any longer?” he says. “We have lost all hope. Is there any
country willing to take us in? Please, tell me which one; we will be on
the next plane out of here.”
When, in October, several Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain were
liberated, there was an initial outburst of relief and celebration among
the displaced Christians in Erbil. Suddenly their dreams of returning
home, of having a future in their cherished motherland, seemed within
But over the last few weeks, priests, militia and Christian
volunteers have been mapping the degree of devastation in the Christian
towns. The results have been increasingly disappointing.
In large Christian settlements like Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karamles,
about 80 per cent of the houses have been either completely destroyed by
Allied bombs and mortars, or burned out by ISIS. The result: in their
current state, they are uninhabitable.
Fr. Thabet points towards a huge pile of rubble.
“That my family’s house,” he says. “It’s completely destroyed. IS used to shoot mortars from there.”
The priest says he is still eager to rebuild his town, and with a
team of volunteers he has already begun clearing out the mud IS left
knee-high in his church. But he admits that returning will be hard.
“There is no electricity, no water, nothing. Do you know how
difficult it is to start cleaning without water available? This process
is going to take longer than some people have expected,” he says.
“We have to prepare for a long time of reconstruction. Yet, I firmly
believe this is Christian ground, and I will work hard to help the
Christians return to this place – God willing, to live here in peace.”
Support centres to open
Although the degree of destruction in the liberated Iraqi Christian
towns is devastating, the first signs of Christians preparing to return
are visible. The first Centre for Support and Encouragement is about to
open its doors in one of the liberated towns, supported by Christian
charity Open Doors.
The local Church expects centres like these to play a crucial role in
facilitating and energising the first wave of returnees. That is why it
is currently preparing the vicarage to start functioning as the centre.
Fr. Thabet points at a house next to the church. Just the day before,
the broken windows were replaced and the door was repaired.
“That will be the new centre,” he says. “Within a few weeks, this will
be the first house where people will actually spend the night again in
Karamles. Nobody is living now in the town, but in the coming months we
hope to bring more and more people back here.”
He opens the front door and shows how the house is not burned and can
be made into a basic centre for the first returnees relatively easily.
“We will offer services to people who are working in this town. Here they can find rest, food and sleep,” he says.
The local Church plans to open centres like these all over the Nineveh Plain, as first outposts for returning Christians.
“These centres will be the bases where they will find the courage and
the enthusiasm to rebuild Karamles and the Church,” says Fr. Thabet.
“This is just a start, but it gives us hope to keep going on and to let
families return here in due course.”
He doesn’t expect this to happen in the coming months. With IS still a
stone’s throw away and the battle for Mosul still raging, not a single
Iraqi Christian seriously thinks of moving back already. And even if IS
was ousted completely, many Christians would need hard guarantees of
political and military protection before they would feel safe enough to
live in their towns again.
“The whole international community has to come up with a solution for the Christians here,” Thabet says.