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In August 2014 Iraq’s Kurdish military units faced what looked like a losing battle against Islamic State militants, or ISIS. The militants had conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in an overnight campaign in June. Now they pressed north, emptying Christian villages, killing and kidnapping residents as they invaded the region, seemingly unstoppable as they forced thousands of Iraqis from their homes. Short of an Iraqi military advance from Baghdad or outside forces—intervention that so far had failed to materialize—millions stood to lose everything, and the United States risked losing whatever gains it had made during its nine-year war in Iraq.
The stories of captivity and death, flight and survival, would pile up, reminding me of the stories Americans kept repeating following the 9/11 attacks. They were a way to understand what seemed incomprehensible. Yet these accounts spread across the 1,500-square-mile expanse of Nineveh Plains where ISIS banished more than a million Iraqis. Many Muslims went south. The Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslims felt they had no hope of finding haven anywhere but to the north, in Kurdistan.
Predominantly Christian towns like Tel Kaif, Bartella, and Telskuf, which I had visited in 2007 and 2008, emptied like water pouring from a broken cistern. ISIS went door to door, looting homes and shops at will, threatening harm to anyone who tried to stay. In the towns to which Christians and Yazidis retreated, the families slept on the floors of churches or schools and recycled the same water to shower, wash their hands, and use the toilet.
Sister Mary Dominic and the other nuns of Telskuf fled to Alqosh, where they took refuge in a church near the old synagogue of Nahum’s tomb. I had visited Alqosh in 2007 and again in 2008, when Sami gave me a tour of the storied villages. Sami, a Christian, had inherited the keys to the prophet Nahum’s tomb and the town’s ledger of Jewish families when many of them fled half a century earlier.
Now, the Christians of Alqosh realized they, too, had to leave: ISIS fighters had been spotted less than six miles away. Sami gathered his family, the ancient ledger of Jewish names, and the keys to Nahum’s tomb, readying for a nighttime escape.
On Mount Sinjar under the stars, those who had managed to survive to this point could watch as Islamic State fighters torched and plundered their homes in the city of Sinjar below.
For weeks Kurdish officials pleaded with the United States for arms and munitions to beat back ISIS. President Obama remained focused on fighting in Ukraine. On August 5 and 6, while the whole center of Iraq was giving way to Islamic jihadists, he attended three sessions of an African leadership summit put on by the White House.
On Thursday, August 7, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement, backed by all 15 member nations, urging other countries to support Iraq in its fight against the jihadists. White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to confirm rumors that the United States was preparing to launch air strikes against ISIS, but he warned that the situation could become a “humanitarian catastrophe.” In response, the White House ordered supplies airdropped over the Sinjar Mountain range. An American C-17 and two C-130s dropped seventy-two bundles—enough food and water for about 8,000 of the nearly 50,000 people who remained there. Helicopters followed at lower altitudes to dump more food, water, and diapers. As they unloaded the bundles, desperate men, women, and children raced toward the choppers to climb aboard, parents handing up babies to U.S. military personnel even as gunners on board fired off belts of ammo against ISIS attackers.
“I have never seen a situation as desperate as this,” said one veteran journalist accompanying the airdrop, “and a rescue effort as ad hoc and as improvised.”
By nightfall the Kurds, lacking resupply from either Baghdad or Washington, feared they might lose Kurdistan. Islamic State militants were reportedly less than five miles from Erbil, the capital. No one doubted any longer the strength and viciousness of ISIS. Late-night newscasts in Erbil said the fighters were close enough to reach the city in ten minutes.
Inside the U.S. consulate in Ankawa, dozens of Americans—diplomats, military personnel, and contractors—were in lockdown mode, communicating by e-mail and cell phones with Washington and with Kurdish officials. At one point the Kurdish interior-ministry official told the Americans that his office was starting to shred documents. ISIS was that close, and without outside intervention, the Kurdish regional government’s downfall seemed possible.
Yousif Matty, a pastor who ran classical schools in Kurdistan, shifted into emergency mode too. Christians had been the common denominator in all the places ISIS had attacked in June and July, and if the militants entered the Kurdish capital, they were likely to target Christian sectors of the city, such as Ankawa, where Yousif lived next to one of the schools.
Yousif gathered his family, including his wife, Alia; his daughters, Noor and Farrah; his son, Majd; and his son-in-law, Siror. The three men collected all the important records for the three schools, including financial and student information. They boxed the files and moved them to his son’s home. They filled their cars’ gas tanks in case a quick getaway was needed. They pulled machine guns, which they’d stowed away during earlier years of war, from deep storage. The guns had long been hidden for just this, a worst-case scenario, the one they had hoped would never happen—when Islamic militants came after Christians, and no one stepped in to stop them.
The family gathered at Majd’s home and waited as the overnight darkness deepened. The steady noise of cars in the streets never slowed. Sporadic shooting could be heard in the distance. Then somewhere between three and four in the morning, they heard the high-altitude roar of planes in the air, a constant drone overhead accompanied by thuds that felt like small explosions. They were fighter jets breaking the sound barrier.
The first strikes came from two F/A-18 combat jets flown off the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, dropping five-hundred-pound laser-guided bombs on an ISIS mortar position southwest of Erbil. A drone armed with Hellfire missiles struck another ISIS mortar position. Later, four aircraft dropped laser-guided bombs on an ISIS convoy.
The strikes continued into the next day, putting the United States back into combat in the skies over Iraq barely three years after ground forces had been withdrawn. But the air offensive broke what had been weeks of unchecked advance by the Islamic jihadists. By daybreak ISIS could have been at Erbil’s doorstep, Yousif would later recall. Instead, its commandos had been pushed back to a distance twenty-five minutes away. It felt like a victory, even if it was only a reprieve.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis remained stranded on Mount Sinjar. Most who survived nearly a week on the mountain eventually walked twelve miles to Syria for refuge. The Kurdish peshmerga then opened a road, allowing the refugees to make their way back to Iraq, to safety in Kurdistan near Dohuk.
Many elderly and disabled Iraqis, along with their caregivers, were trapped in the cities and towns overtaken by ISIS, beholden to the Islamists’ whims and cruelties. Otherwise those cities and towns sat eerily empty, guarded by guns and black-cloaked militants but home to no commerce, no everyday life.
In Qaraqosh, about one hundred Christians had been left behind. ISIS held them hostage inside their homes or churches. One father described being tortured while his wife and two children were threatened after the family refused to deny their faith. When ISIS ordered them back to their home, the family escaped.
A few months later I met Najeeb Daniel and his wife, Dalal, both in their seventies. ISIS militants had held them in their Qaraqosh home for fifteen days in August, then forced them to run. The militants loaded them, along with others who had been too old or disabled to leave sooner, onto a bus. They drove them to the edge of town, where they dropped them off and ordered them to cross the Khazir River, located nearly ten miles away. Given the condition of the group, the walk to the river took nearly twelve hours. Already tottering, Najeeb fell into a hole along the way and broke his leg. The armed militants shooed them from behind, yet he couldn’t move. Someone—Najeeb said it was a nun—dispatched a young man in a wheelbarrow, who picked up Najeeb and several others and ferried them to the river’s edge. The young man carried Najeeb across the river on his shoulders. His wife said the water reached chest height.
Once they made it to the other side, the gunmen left them alone. Learning of their flight, Kurds came in cars to help them, and medics took Najeeb to a hospital in Erbil. When I interviewed Najeeb and his wife, they were living in one bare room on the upper floor of Erbil’s downtown shopping mall, where hundreds of displaced families were staying. Like nearly everyone who escaped ISIS, they made a home wherever they could, in this case accessible only by escalator. Najeeb’s leg had been set but hadn’t healed well, and he couldn’t walk. He sat on the floor under a blanket, his chin quivering uncontrollably. When he tried to speak, only fragments of sentences would come. Dalal told me their story.
For years the Iraqi Christians who populated Nineveh Plains had weighed and measured the high cost of staying but felt the tug of blood and history. When al-Qaeda kidnapped their sons and fathers, they thought of earlier Ninevites, the Assyrians who had converted to Christianity, and they remained.
When the Sunni militias made life in their cities a daily hell of roadside bombs, they thought of the Chaldean church fathers and the monastic hermits with their libraries, and they hung on.
When the jihadist death squads in Baghdad and Mosul forced Christians from their neighborhoods, bombed them, and shot at them even while they worshiped, they remembered the life of music, the arts, the gatherings, and the commerce in the once-vibrant Jewish and Christian quarters, and they persevered. They even built new churches to keep faith alive.
And when the politicians overlooked their plight again and again, or when those who’d made it out to other countries told them it was too dangerous to remain in Iraq, they thought of the land, its history, and their fellow believers, and they responded as Insaf Safou (my Iraq friend who worked to help the Christians) had years earlier: “I only hear Jesus saying, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
Now Nineveh Plains was empty of Christians, empty of all worship but ISIS worship. The bells of the churches had fallen silent for the first time since the seventh century. Voices for singing had been carried away. The crosses had come down; the worship spaces had been converted to mosques or simply destroyed. The people who would not renounce their faith had been chased out, finally and perhaps irrevocably.
From Sami’s cousin Dawlat Abouna in Baghdad, I learned that not only had Sami fled Alqosh but that he had departed Iraq for Turkey, taking the keys to Nahum’s tomb with him.
“He is not coming back,” Sami’s cousin told me.
Would he talk to me? I asked. He was the emblematic keeper of the Jews’ and the Christians’ legacy, I said. We all need to hear his story.
“No,” came Dawlat’s reply. “He says he will not speak to any American ever again.”
From They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East by Mindy Belz. © 2016. Published by Tyndale Momentum. All rights reserved.
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