Telskof, northern Iraq – Linda Adib Younis’ house in the Iraqi town of Telskof has high ceilings, with shelves all the way to the top stacked with trinkets – cuddly toys, ornate porcelain figures, vases.
There were even more before she was displaced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in 2014.
Younis, 44, moved to Telskof from Baghdad nearly three decades ago and started a dress rental business, hiring out flouncy gowns for weddings and other parties. Her house became a central gathering point for local women; she held coffee mornings, where she would read people’s fortunes in their cups.
Life changed for Younis, along with the other 800 or so families living in Telskof, in August 2014, when ISIL seized the town. The armed group subsequently swept through the surrounding province of Nineveh, viciously killing and abducting Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims. Younis and her family fled to the neighbouring Kurdish city of Dohuk.
“I cried every day,” said Younis, noting she had become used to having neighbours constantly in and out of her house and felt intensely lonely after the move.
Telskof, which translates roughly to “Bishop’s Hill”, is situated in an area steeped in ancient history: the former heart of the Assyrian Empire. It is close to the ruins of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh. The area’s Christian identity dates back to the fourth century.
Before ISIL arrived, it was an affluent area, so most of those who fled from Telskof opted for rental accommodation in nearby towns and cities, rather than displacement camps.
Jina Kyriakos, a 38-year-old mini-mart owner, was among the last to leave. “It’s a small Christian village, far away from everything else, and I couldn’t imagine ISIS would come,” she told Al Jazeera.
But eventually, as their neighbours all began to move, Kyriakos and her husband packed their belongings and fled to Dohuk. They thought they would be home within a few days; instead, it was more than two years.
Before 2003, there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. But between the 2003 US invasion and the 2014 ISIL incursion, around half fled the country, with many seeking refuge in the United States or Europe. Others left Baghdad and other areas of Iraq where they were a minority and moved to the Nineveh plains, one of few places in Iraq with Christian-majority towns and villages. So when ISIL arrived in Telskof, for many, it forced a second displacement.
“When we had to leave Telskof, it was even more painful than our first displacement,” said Azra Bashir, 19. “We felt that wherever we go is not safe, that all we will ever face is migration, that there is no safety for us.”
Although Kurdish and Iraqi forces pushed ISIL back from Telskof in less than two weeks, the town remained on the front lines of the battle against the armed group, which briefly retook it in May 2016. The homes of displaced residents were used variously by ISIL fighters, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi paramilitaries.
When people began to return this year, most found their homes ruined. Today, the painted facades of the houses and shops remain pockmarked with bullet holes.
Along with Qaraqosh, a large Christian town nearby, Telskof was one of the first areas in Iraq to start rebuilding after ISIL’s occupation. It will be no small job: The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need estimates that 12,000 houses in the Nineveh plain need to be rebuilt, for a total cost of $200m. The fate of Telskof is being seen as a bellwether not just for recovery, but for the future of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian communities.
Kyriakos was among the first to return, going back to her house in February 2017.
“It was like a ghost town,” she recalled. “The shop was ransacked, all the windows were broken, and everything was dirty and smelly.” It took several months to repair, she said.
By April 2017, almost half of the town’s residents were back. Younis says she found her collection of dresses in ruins.
“My daughter came back to the house first, and called me to say that I should be prepared to see what had happened to the dresses,” Younis recalled. “They were ripped and filthy, torn to pieces. I felt it physically; these dresses were my whole livelihood.”
With the help of a training programme and a grant from the International Rescue Committee, some have restarted their businesses. Kyriakos’ mini-mart is open again, meaning that residents no longer have to travel to other towns for groceries.
“Telskof is small, and everyone is connected to each other,” she said. “When they heard my store was running, other people began to open up their places too – the bakery, the tea shop.”
But the future remains uncertain for the people of Telskof. After Iraq’s Kurds voted overwhelmingly for secession in late September, clashes broke out between Arab and Kurdish forces, including along the border between the two regions, where Telskof is situated. Residents were again displaced for two weeks, later returning home with their confidence shaken.
Still, life goes on. During her long displacement, Bashir married a young man from the same town. “We are looking to the future,” she said. She has also opened a shop selling baby clothes and has made some sales as families with children return to Telskof, hopeful that schools will reopen soon.
Younis has restocked her dresses – a smaller array than before – and is hiring them out again. There are fewer parties now, and most people are strapped for cash after years of disrupted work, so prices are down. But she is cautiously optimistic: “The village is not full, so the events are not as before. It takes time for normal life to return. But I hope it will.”