IRAQ – Displaced Christians are returning to their former homelands
Despite continuing insecurity, a few brave Christian and Yizidi genocide survivors have begun to return to the ruins that were once their homes and businesses. Some Christian families have started straggling back to the eastern part of Mosul, which has recently been liberated from Islamic State by an international coalition of Iraqi army and Kurdish forces led by the United States. According to the United Nations about 30,000 people have returned to the eastern suburbs of Mosul, an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city of 2 million, whose western part remains a war zone.
Several hundred more Christian families have also returned to a few majority-Christian villages close to Kurdistan, including Teleskuf. Unlike neighbouring village Batnaya, where most homes were demolished, only 66 houses in Telskuf were destroyed – although 879 received some damage – so 85 families were able to return by early March 2017. Others have since joined them. Shops are selling meat and vegetables, but water has to be bused in and there is no electricity. Children are taken by bus to the town of Alqosh 15 minutes away for school. Nineveh’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, which is not within the protection zone of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, remains a ghost town, with burned down homes and churches destroyed by the jihadis.
Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s Middle East Projects Coordinator , said: “We were expecting families to start going back in June and ACN has to be ready to help them to go back. But the latest information indicates that some families have decided to go back to the villages already during winter, despite the harsh weather conditions and very poor or destroyed infrastructure.”
Father Halemba added: “Hope is coming back to the Nineveh Plains. Despite the many urgent questions that need clarification, people are willing to return to their villages.” Apart from those Christians who have already gone back to the Nineveh Plains, there is a growing desire among the remaining displaced communities to return home. An ACN survey of 1500 displaced families who sought sanctuary in Erbil showed that of the 1,308 respondents, 87 percent might be willing to return to their villages now they have been liberated and 41 percent said that they definitely wanted to go back.
The next six months will be decisive for Iraq’s Christians. This period will determine whether these ancient communities — some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus of Nazareth and trace their faith to Thomas the Apostle – will be able to leave the refugee camps and temporary shelters to return home. It will determine whether they can rebuild their shattered lives in the lands their families have lived in for millennia.
As their hometowns in Iraq’s northern Nineveh Province become liberated in an ongoing coalition offensive and IS is driven out, Christian and other minority genocide survivors will need international help and protection if they are to survive. However, there is a new danger that Christian areas will be omitted from U.N. reconstruction plans and an ISIS’ genocide investigation in Iraq to be initiated by the U.N. Security Council. The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil says it has received no U.N. or State Department USAID-administered humanitarian aid for 70,000 genocide survivors under its care since 2014. This encompasses the largest community of displaced Iraqi Christians, as well as some Yizidis.
A recent study by ACN indicates that the cost of rebuilding Christian villages destroyed by IS in northern Iraq could exceed £160 million (US$200 million).The ACN study which looked at 12 Christian villages, found that 11,704 homes had suffered damage – including torching – of which 669 were completely destroyed. Father Halemba, who oversaw the survey, said the charity is working with local churches to draw up plans to enable Christians to return – but stressed that international cooperation would be needed.