Baghdad, Iraq – Exactly four years ago, a whole community of Iraqi Christians who lived for decades in the lush plains of the northeast fled their homes, never to return.
Displaced by the expansion of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – which rapidly overran vast territories in Iraq, eventually seizing one-third of the country in 2014 – Christian families left their homes in the ancient Assyrian towns of Nineveh province to resettle in Erbil and the capital, Baghdad.
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Samir Petrus, 50, who left Hamdaniya, a district located on the outskirts of Mosul, where the majority of the Iraqi Christian community are Syriac, says he will never return to Nineveh.
“There’s nothing for me to go back to. No jobs, no home, let alone safety and security,” says Petrus, who now lives at an IDP camp in Baghdad. “I’m here now with my girls and I have to look ahead.”
ISIL targeted minorities of the Nineveh plains when it stormed northern Iraq, taking over Mosul in 2014. Although other communities in Mosul hope to go home again, Christian and Yazidi minorities say they’ve endured enough persecution and refuse to return, even if ISIL has been defeated.
Safehaven in Baghdad
Petrus has a vivid memory of the horror on August 6, 2014. As a driver, he helped transport dozens of families out of Hamdaniya the night ISIL moved into surrounding territory.
“We received a call at 2am from my sister-in-law. She told us that the Peshmerga had been defeated,” he says, handing over a fragrant cup of coffee.
The Kurdish Peshmerga had been fighting alongside the Hashd al-Shabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, and the Iraqi Army to try and contain ISIL’s lightning advance into northern Iraq.
“It was a matter of hours. We had to leave,” he adds, remembering how he fled with his wife Evelyn and five girls in fear of what ISIL might do to them.
“I knew what they did to the Yazidis. They (ISIL) would have taken my girls and done whatever, then chopped them up into pieces. The whole town fled that night. Just a few stayed behind.”
Petrus took his family to Erbil before eventually relocating to Baghdad, where he has lived in the Zayoona suburb of Baghdad for four years.
Along with 183 other families, Perus calls an IDP camp – set up by the Christian Assyrians at their headquarters in Baghdad since 2014 – home.
The camp, which was established with the help of Baghdad’s provincial council and the ministry of displaced families along with international NGOs and churches, provides Petrus’ family with a portacabin of two rooms and kitchen.
To him, Baghdad has become home and he sees no way of going back to Nineveh.
“When I visited my hometown, I found nothing but a closet in my destructed flat,” he says, sitting among his daughters in a small living room inside their cabin, with pictures of Jesus and a large cross adorning the walls.
“I found safety and security in Baghdad,” says Petrus, who now runs a little shop in the camp.
“It’s like how it used to be back home where I could practise my faith openly and everyone – Sunni, Shia, Christian or Yazidi – got along,” he adds.
Still in fear
Like Petrus, Nahla Khadr, a mother of two, also from Hamdaniya, has no intention of returning to Nineveh.
“We’ll either stay in Baghdad or leave the country altogether,” says Nahla. “But I’d never go back.”
Khadr, who has been living with her husband and children, Abdel Masih, 13, and Maryam, 11, at the camp Baghdad says Nineveh will never feel safe again.
“I went to visit [Hamdaniya] a few weeks ago, but my son refused to join us. He still remembers what it was like to leave when ISIL stormed our village. He’s afraid to go back.”
Although ISIL was defeated in December 2017, like Nahla and her family, most of the 148 families at the camp are unlikely to return to Nineveh. They see their future in Baghdad or abroad, where many of Iraq’s Christians, and other minority communities, have gradually headed since 2003.
According to Yonadam Kanna, a former member of parliament and an Assyrian Christian from Baghdad, religious tensions remain in areas overrun by ISIL, making it difficult for Christians to return.
“Only 20 families went back, but even some of those returned here. They don’t feel safe there and there’s no opportunity or means to rebuild a life in Nineveh,” he adds.
Leaving Iraq altogether
Father Martin Dawood, head of the citizens’ affairs department at the Christian Endowment Office, agrees the main obstacle in the way of Christian families returning is double-pronged: lack of services and trust.
“The Plains of Nineveh were already neglected by the government even before ISIL came. The tensions have only made it worse – there are no basic services or job opportunities.”
“They are also afraid that ISIL or a similar group may return, and that this time they wouldn’t be lucky to flee in time,” adds Dawood, who says rebuilding trust between the families and the areas from which they fled is essential.
Still, Dawood says he believes the families in Baghdad will only remain in Iraq temporarily before migrating abroad.
“Most families in Baghdad wish to leave the country,” he says. “Although in Baghdad the situation is better, for years [since the US-led invasion in 2003], Iraqi Christians have been leaving the country.
“ISIL’s presence only made this desire to leave more urgent.”
Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter: @arwaIb