“Baghdad ha perduto la sua bellezza e non ne è rimasto che il nome.
Rispetto a ciò che essa era un tempo, prima che gli eventi la colpissero e gli occhi delle calamità si rivolgessero a lei, essa non è più che una traccia annullata, o una sembianza di emergente fantasma”
By Newsweek Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville Three years ago, as darkness fell over the northern Iraqi town of
Qaraqosh, Sabah PetrusShema helped his extended family pile into a
pickup truck and leave town. When they were gone, he grabbed two
Kalashnikovs and waited as the sound of mortar fire drew near.
down the road, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was advancing.
By early the next morning, nearly all of the town's residents were gone,
and a stream of panicked soldiers began to pass through, retreating
from the front. That's when Shema knew it was time to flee. "It was a
painful decision," he says. "We were leaving behind our homes, our
churches, everything. All we took was our clothes, our IDs and some
Qaraqosh was among dozens of towns in northern Iraq that ISIS overran
in 2014. Over the past three years, the Iraqi army has regrouped, with
the help of Shiite militias, Kurdish forces and American airpower,
driving the militants out of all but a few small pockets, such as
central Mosul. But while predominantly Muslim towns have begun to
rebuild, in Qaraqosh and other mostly Christian places, few residents
have returned. Fearing more war and extremism, many worry they never
will. "The future in Iraq is full of ambiguity," says Shema, who now
lives in a refugee camp in Erbil. "After ISIS is gone, there may be another group that is even worse."
most of Qaraqosh looks like ghost town. Weeds and wildflowers have
sprouted along the main roads, and there's an eerie silence, save for
the occasional passing truck filled with soldiers from the Nineveh
Plains Unit, a Christian militia.
The destruction of Qaraqosh was
systematic, and everywhere you look, the buildings are charred from
flames. ISIS fighters went from home to home, dousing them in chemicals
and setting them ablaze. In churches, they smashed religious icons and
slashed the faces of paintings of Jesus and Mary. Throughout the town,
they left booby traps and improvised explosive devices, some of which
Yousif Yaqoub, the president of the Beth Nahrin National
Union, an Assyrian Christian political party, believes the militants
wanted to make the town uninhabitable, to send a message to the
country's Christians. "It's not just in Qaraqosh," Yaqoub tells Newsweek by phone from Erbil. "In the other Christian towns too, they tried to destroy every single house."
Given Qaraqosh's disrepair, it's understandable that few residents
want to return. Yet other Muslim-majority towns suffered worse
destruction and have sprung back to life in the months since ISIS fled.
Even in Mosul, where fierce fighting continues, once shuttered stores
have reopened, and empty neighborhoods are now bustling with people. On a
visit to the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of western Mosul in April, just a
month after it was recaptured, shopkeepers were repainting their
blackened storefronts even as gunfire and explosions erupted a few
Though a few Qaraqosh residents have started
trickling back in recent months, the vast majority aren't. Before the
ISIS invasion, 50,000 people lived here. Now, there are only an
estimated 180 families. The Christians are concerned over how readily
some of their Muslim neighbors accepted the rise of ISIS. "There are
still many people who support ISIS," says a Nineveh Plains Unit member,
who identified himself only as Major Latif. The militamen periodically
conduct raids to break up sleeper cells in the area.
months, ISIS sleeper cells have launched attacks in and around parts of
Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as in the capital, Baghdad. "We are afraid of
all the people who supported ISIS," says Shema. "They were brainwashed.
Even the children were taught to kill. If security was present, then we
could go home. But in Qaraqosh there is no justice, no law to protect
Many Iraqi Christians fear the law will never protect them.
ISIS, they feel, is just one of many extremist groups that have
threatened non-Muslims since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Before the American invasion, there were roughly 1.5 million Christians
in Iraq. Since then, their numbers have dwindled to 500,000. Most, such
as Shema, are now living in displacement camps in Iraq's semiautonomous
Kurdish region. The conditions are cramped but adequate, in part because
the plight of Iraq's Christians has become a cause for faith-based
charities across the world.
Yet for Shema, life in the refugee
camp is a form of purgatory--his home will forever be Qaraqosh, even if
he doesn't know when he can live there again. He's visited
once--briefly--since ISIS pulled out. All his furniture had been stolen,
and there was ash covering the floor. In the front garden, his flower
beds had disappeared, and there was a gaping hole where Iraqi troops had
dug up an IED.
"It was a great shock," he says. "[ISIS] destroyed everything."