QARAQOSH, Iraq — As hundreds of displaced families waited to register their names at the town seminary, it was the same appalling story told over and over.
“At the checkpoint they asked for our IDs,” said one man referring to Iraqi Identity cards that include religious denomination. “They said, “You are Nassarah [the Koranic name for Christians]. Give us your money, your cellphones, your jewelry and your car keys.”
Family after family described being searched — their pockets emptied of all belongings — and sent to walk out of Mosul with nothing but the clothes they wore.
“My 5-year-old grandson son was clutching his favorite toy,” said Inam, 55, still in tears. The child stood next to her in the grounds of the seminary, his face downcast and sad. “He said, ‘Please Sir, this is for me.’ This is a child, just a child, with a valueless toy. But the Islamic State man took it from his hands and said, ‘You are Christian, nothing is for you.”
When the Islamic State (IS) and its band of Sunni militants took over Mosul last month, the small Christian community of around 35,000 was fearful. For decades they had been the targets of bigoted violence that has so far forced more than half of Iraq’s Christian minority to flee. The Sunni takeover seemed bound to be one of their biggest threats yet. But the extremists made public statements assuring Christians they were welcome and had nothing to fear. Until last Thursday, these now displaced, homeless, and penniless families said IS had appeared to be honoring their words.
“They said they would not do anything to us. The situation had been normal,” said Lena, Inam’s daughter, who like all of the newly displaced Mosulites was afraid to give her full name. “But on Thursday men from IS came and began painting something on our house. We were too scared to go out until they left. There was a big ‘N’ for Nassarah — that’s what they call us — and then on another wall it said ‘This house belongs to the Islamic State.’”
Lena said they were so afraid that night they couldn’t sleep or eat at all. They began making plans to leave. Then came the ultimatum.
Some families said they received notices at their homes Thursday. Others had received Facebook messages or read the notice in the local papers. Then, late Thursday evening, the same chilling words were announced from the mosques and cars with loudspeakers that drove through the streets repeating the three choices: convert to Islam, pay a hefty ‘protection tax’ — a minimum of $250 per person per month, or “face the sword.”
By Friday morning the message changed — all Christians must leave the city by 12am Saturday or die.
Families packed their belongings and began a mass exodus. But as they reached the city limits, IS checkpoints stopped them, robbing them of all they owned.
Displaced families wait to register at the Saint Ephrem seminary in Qaraqosh.
Inam described how she had begged to keep her medication when they took her handbag. They refused. Amid tears she said they had even taken the baby bottle from her daughter as she held her 9-month-old baby. Her son-in-law begged them to allow him to take a bottle of water for the children. He was taken aside and told to kneel.
“I was so afraid they were going to kill him because I had asked for too much,” Inam said, the horror of the scene evident in her expression.
The family was released unharmed but sent away on foot, empty-handed and humiliated in the hot midday sun, without a cell phone to contact relatives or friends.
Family after family told of cash that had been confiscated from them — 2 million Iraqi dinar, 5 million dinar, a 12 million dinar car, a gold seller who handed over 15kg of gold.
“We cannot leave you with anything because our Caliph [Abu Bakr al Baghdadi] told us to confiscate all,” was what one man, who gave his name as George, was told when he asked the IS guards if he could keep his car.
“At the checkpoints, all the IS guards were Iraqi, but most were no more than 16 or 17,” he said.
Despite their young age, he described them as confident and firm. While he was sure those manning the checkpoints belonged to the Islamic State, he said that inside Mosul he did not know from which Sunni groups the militants belonged to, but that there were a lot of foreigners among them.
“It was impossible to speak to them, so we don’t know who was in charge,” George said. “But you could tell by their faces they were from different countries. Some looked French. There were Russians and other Arabs, even some Chinese. I saw many fathers working with their young sons.”
George and his group said armed militants had a heavy presence in the streets of Mosul. They wore knee length dishdashas and long pants in various colors that signified their roles as police, army or various security divisions.
“When they first entered they covered their faces but later no,” he said.
Standing nearby in the church courtyard, a young mother, Nada, added that after IS arrived all the women had to wear burqas and driving was forbidden. Once she saw an IS militant whip a man in the market. She did not know his crime.
Nada explained that some of the first families to leave in the early hours of Friday morning had called to warn them that everything was being taken and the men were being searched at the four checkpoints that block all exists from the city. Some of the women decided to hide valuables on their bodies but by 11am the IS wised-up and brought in a crew of female militants.
As Nada reached the checkpoint, an IS guard ordered her to hand over the cross around her neck.
“I said, ‘Take everything, but please just leave me with this cross.’ I didn't want it to fall into the hands of the terrorists,” Nada said. “But he told me that the women would be checking me and if they found even one piece of gold or valuables they would kill me immediately, so I better hand over everything now.”
Nada was sent to the IS women for a pat search.
“You couldn’t see a person underneath,” she said describing their black uniforms, which even veiled their eyes, “Just a black wall.”
After the IS guards took around 40 million dinar worth of cash and possessions from them, Nada and her family were one of the few to be allowed to drive out in their emptied vehicle.
The flight to Qaraqosh
The sun sets behind the Qaraqosh skyline. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)
Qaraqosh, to which most of these people have fled, is an almost entirely Christian village 70 km from Mosul. The town is currently under Kurdish control, but with the constant threat of IS’s nearby presence there have been multiple attacks in the past month.
Qaraqosh local Basim Ishoa Qasab began documenting the arrival of displaced families for Ataa, an Iraqi aid organization, on Friday morning. He said of the 416 families who registered in Qaraqosh, almost half had lost all their possessions including ID cards and documents. Others had been allowed to keep their passports or some personal items. A limited number had somehow managed to avoid the checkpoints and escaped with their packed vehicles intact.
“The bishop refused to let them live in tents so he called on the families of Qaraqosh to open their homes,” he said.
The response was a rare glimpse of humanity and compassion in an otherwise life-shattering ordeal. The families were accommodated in living rooms, offices, vacant homes, and even within the grounds of a family fun park.
“The people of Qaraqosh are doing everything they can. They are treating us well, but we survive on handouts. [IS] took away our dignity,” said the head of a family of 11 now living in a beer garden.
As he reclined against a plastic chair, staring vacantly at the stars, local friends chatted over beer and shisha pipes in the grassy courtyard.
Qasab said before this new crisis, IS attacks on Qaraqosh, fended off by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, had had already severely disrupted the local economy as well as the delivery of basic services such as electricity and water.
“It is a large burden on families to find bedding, food, clothing — everything for these people,” he said calling on the international community for desperately needed aid. “But the mental situation is far more hopeless. Their futures have been stolen. It is a kind of genocide. IS are trying to wipe the Christian population from Iraq.”
And they haven’t stopped at the Christians of Mosul. Government employees in Qaraqosh said after two months the Iraqi government had finally sent their wages to the city bank last week. Shortly after, IS members called the bank manager and the heads of various departments including the head of education for the town. They were each told they would be killed immediately if any wages were paid out to any Christian man or woman. Several days later, the money remains in the central bank as families struggle to pay their bills.
A displaced Christian family rest in the home of relatives in Sulimaniyah. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)
Large areas of farmland surrounding Qaraqosh were seized by IS over the weekend.
“Four of my cousins were kidnapped this morning,” said one young man on Saturday. The four men who had left to work on their land at 9am are still being held by IS forces on their property.
That same morning, IS militants seized the 4th century Mar Behnam Monastery. The monks were allowed to leave on foot, but as with the Christians of Mosul, they left with only the clothes they wore and walked in the midday heat to Qaraqosh, some 20km away.
“This monastery is a place of pilgrimage for Christians. It is very important for us,” said Father Amanual Sadel who serves as a priest in Qaraqosh. “It is part of our heritage and our history.”
He described those responsible for this spate of offenses against the Christian community as “savage” and their actions “barbarian."
“We are living in 2014, but they think and behave as if they live during the Islamic invasions of a thousand years ago,” he said.
As for the future of Christians in Iraq Father Sadel said, “We cannot predict anything. The future for the whole of Iraq is unclear, but hundreds of Christians are leaving.”
Inam and her daughters say their future lies only in the hands of God.
“They want to make a ‘solution’ for us,” Inam said, using a word dredged in ugly history, and less of a jump than it might have been before the labeling campaign and property confiscation. “This is the last time we will see our beloved Mosul.”