Iraq’s grisly liberation
Areas freed from the Islamic State’s grip display the depth of the terror group’s war crimes. As Iraqi forces continue that fight, American aid groups are staking out front-line positions, too
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MOSUL, Iraq—In the Nineveh Plains cities destroyed by ISIS, the devil lies in the details. In Qaraqosh, the largest such town, ISIS militants left behind cooking pots and vacuum cleaners wired with explosives. Piles of rubble concealed pressure plates made of metal tape measures, wired to detonate when even a child stepped on them.
The destruction also is comprehensive. One photo, or two or three, can’t fully capture the wrecking ball that was Islamic State occupation over the last two years, especially in areas where Christians historically have lived. Every street, every doorway, every wall in some way is marred or destroyed. A run of metal fencing, even, stands twisted, deformed, melted. Militants tunneled passageways running 30 feet deep beneath houses, leaving the dirt piled high inside bedrooms, where it reached above the curtains. They punched large doorways through houses so they could pass house to house undetected by U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Piles of rubble replace furniture, and debris substitutes for artwork and signage, anything that made everyday life beautiful and meaningful. In a church cemetery in Bartella, militants uncovered and desecrated nearly every gravesite, even prying open caskets, then leaving bodies exposed but still wrapped inside.
At first look the upheaval appears chaotic, as though an earthquake has struck. But on closer examination the destruction proves to be grimly systematic, the work of a sick but highly organized bureaucracy—a manquake.
The Islamic State “perpetrated crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i people in [Nineveh] province between June and August 2014,” declared the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in a 2015 report. What you see along the streets of Qaraqosh—and dozens of other towns—is evidence of those war crimes and more.
Besides forcing those people groups from their homes en masse, looting or destroying all their possessions, killing and enslaving thousands of them, ISIS made its daily vocation over a two-year period to desecrate or reduce to rubble their residences, shops, and churches. They brought in earthmovers and bulldozers to do what chisels and explosives could not. Their goal, in short, was to eliminate for these non-Muslims their past, present, and perhaps their future.
As fighting against ISIS enters a fifth grueling month in Iraq, centered just 20 miles from Qaraqosh in Mosul, the Islamic State’s brand of war crimes hasn’t ended. ISIS in recent weeks began using armed drones, dropping grenades and homemade explosives on civilian and military targets in Mosul. The jihadists, too, aren’t entirely vanquished from liberated areas. In recent weeks a jihadist emerged from the tunnel system ISIS built beneath Qaraqosh. Army members shot and killed the fighter, then discovered he was a 13-year-old boy.
THE AIR WAS COLD but the sun shone bright on the recent February morning when I walked through devastated Qaraqosh. The last time I visited the city, also called Hamdaniyah, was in 2008, when a boisterous parade of Christians, mostly Assyrians and Chaldeans, filled the streets to protest an election law. A noisy crowd carried banners, local TV crews followed, men stood on corners chain-smoking, and delicious aromas rose from open-air bakeries churning out flatbread and kebab stands sizzling with lamb and beef. Afterward my driver bought a whole roasted chicken cooked with onions and peppers, and we ate it, picnic-style, in the open sunshine.
This time the same streets were silent as graves. Once a city of more than 60,000 residents, a near-empty Qaraqosh was liberated last November. ISIS cut electricity and running water, and that along with the ongoing dangers—IEDs, tunneling, and stray Islamic State fighters—was still keeping residents away. Occasionally a car passed, former residents touring the damage. A soldier bicycled by, almost noiselessly. The only real sound was my own feet crunching into rubble outside St. George’s Church.
St. George’s faces a roundabout in a once-busy market area. The shops across the street where soda, cigarettes, and children’s clothing had once been sold were now black holes. Metal doors had been twisted from their hinges and the walls spray-painted with black ISIS inscriptions. The acrid odor of burnt metal, oil fumes, and decomposing flesh lingered. Dead electrical lines lay across sidewalks, but glass, all blown from upper story windows, had been swept away.
Beneath the soaring entryway leading into the church were three guards, all soldiers from Qaraqosh attached to the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian militia incorporated into Iraqi army regiments at the start of the campaign that began last October to liberate Iraq from ISIS. “ISIS adores death,” said Martin Bassam from the militia. “Anything they did not burn was only because they used it.”
Unlike other churches I saw, where militants sprayed walls with oil then torched them until they charred black, St. George’s sanctuary was intact: ISIS had used it as a cache to store missiles.
In a classroom building across a rubble-filled courtyard, ISIS had set up a bomb-making factory. Much of it still remained as ISIS left it, because church leaders and local officials awaited some official inquiry. After all, these were the scenes of war crimes. Sacks of open fertilizer and barrels of sugar sat on the floor alongside makeshift detonators. On a table were strewn kitchen scales, mixing bowls, and a measuring scoop, along with a coil of wire and a notebook on concocting lethal IEDs. In a corner was a pile of screws and empty shell casings used to pack suicide vests. The army caught some of the bomb-makers inside tunnels beneath the church, Bassam said. But months now of holding the city can’t erase years of violence.
When ISIS, also known as Daesh, seized Iraqi territory in 2014, the extremists gave Christians four options—leave, convert to Islam, pay a jizya tax, or be killed. Nearly all the Christians, an estimated 120,000, fled. Those left behind were tortured and subjected to sexual abuse and forced conversion. At least a dozen Christian women and girls disappeared from Qaraqosh, all believed enslaved by ISIS fighters. Esam, a refugee living in Jordan, said ISIS crucified his brother-in-law in Qaraqosh: “He was crucified and tortured in front of his wife and children, who were forced to watch,” he told World Watch Monitor. “They told him that if he loved Jesus that much, he would die like Jesus.”
“There were killings and horrible things happening in the church courtyards,” said Bassam. His own family members were forced out and are living in Iraqi Kurdistan about 30 miles away. His brother, a monk at Mar Behnam Monastery about 10 miles south, barely escaped execution when ISIS took over the site, a fourth-century monastery built by Assyrian King Sencharib. ISIS blew up and destroyed parts of the site in March 2015.
Such catastrophic losses haven’t dimmed Bassam’s family’s hopes of returning. “They will all be coming back for sure,” he said.
Not everyone is optimistic Christians will be allowed to return to their homes or will want to. “Security is the most critical need we have,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda told Catholic News Service. “We want to first build houses for our people so they can live with dignity, and we need infrastructure in the villages. But all this is only possible if we can have security.”
‘ISIS adores death. Anything they did not burn was only because they used it.’
Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian Church of the East priest who heads Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, said he’s no longer sure there is a future for Christians in Mosul. Besides destroying Christian landmarks and homes, ISIS eliminated public records, making legal claims over contested property difficult. When Youkhana visited Mosul in late January, he visited two damaged churches used as warehouses by ISIS. Already one of them had been turned over to a contractor, who was dismantling the building until the Iraqi army intervened.
“We will hear nice statements, but it will be impossible to get some of this property restored,” said Youkhana. “On the ground Daesh is defeated, but we are the losers.”
Complicating the situation are the competing armed forces currently fighting ISIS in and around Mosul. Besides the Iraqi army and the U.S.-led coalition supporting it, Kurdish peshmerga hold territory east of Mosul toward the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, separate Kurdish militias from Syria and Turkey hold territory in the west, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias fight alongside the Iraqi army in Mosul. They also control some of the territory in Nineveh, including once-Christian towns like Bartella. For Christians hoping to return, knowing who will control their hometowns and whether they can be trusted is the challenge.
“I notice discouragement most with Christians. They are finished,” said Darrell Yoder of Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), an Ohio-based nonprofit. “They have seen Saddam; they have seen ISIS; they have seen enough.”
YODER, WHO HAS DIRECTED CAM AID PROJECTS in Iraq for a decade, is among a number of Christian workers not running from the challenges of the ISIS conflict. Remarkably, as fighting has intensified and Iraq again has become a war zone, some aid groups are pressing toward the front lines.
CAM has been partnering with other organizations to provide food, blankets, kerosene, and necessities to residents who’ve been surviving ISIS occupation, particularly in Mosul. At casualty collection points run by military commanders during fighting, CAM provided blankets and water under armed escort. Yoder, a Mennonite, avoids using weapons himself but isn’t averse to the danger. “It’s been our opportunity to be in the middle of the difficulty, because that’s where we see the gap.”
One of the partner groups Yoder has helped supply is Free Burma Rangers (FBR), an American-led aid group with 20 years’ experience providing help to war victims—though thousands of miles from Mosul in Burma. Director David Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, got a call to help in Iraq and Syria in 2015, and by November 2016 he was handing out badly needed supplies to civilians caught in combat.
“Over and over we’d hear this part of Mosul was clear of civilians, nobody was living there, and when the bullets stopped flying people would pop up from their houses by the hundreds. They were desperate for help,” said Eubank.
Besides material help, FBR also offers spiritual teaching and neighborly kindness. Eubank’s team—which includes his wife Karen and three children—hosts “Good Neighbor Clubs” in the areas where they work. These include mornings of singing and storytelling, usually featuring Bible stories, plus games and T-shirts for school-age children.
Mortar rounds and gunfire sounded from West Mosul as the FBR team led children in a round of “duck, duck, goose” in East Mosul in February. The approximately 1,000 people living in the suburb of Shahrazad, mostly Muslims and Turkmen, survived two years of ISIS control plus its fight with the Iraqi army in December. ISIS dug mortar pits in the school playground where FBR held its program, and surrounding buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Earthen berms surround the area.
As children played on playground equipment erected by FBR, Haiman Abdulkadem said Mosul residents were just glad to be outdoors: “We had to burn our furniture to cook and stay warm during ISIS occupation.”
He himself was held for seven days by ISIS, he said, tortured alongside Yazidi and Christian prisoners in central Mosul. “We need the love and forgiveness of Jesus. What’s wrong with my people is we love chaos. In chaos we can do as we want.”
Eubank has been caught in the crossfire. His team was pinned down alongside Iraq’s 36th Brigade during several days’ fighting at Al-Salam Hospital, one of Mosul’s largest medical facilities. Soldiers advanced quickly into the area then became surrounded by ISIS fighters, who called for reinforcements from throughout the city. ISIS deployed suicide bombers, destroying half a dozen tanks and killing about 20 soldiers, before U.S. airstrikes successfully targeted the ISIS positions.
The airstrikes left the hospital in ruin, but three weeks after the battle the surrounding area was coming back to life. Merchants opened shops displaying mannequins dressed in colorful gowns—all forbidden under ISIS. Taxis again were running, and children walked debris-strewn streets. “We’re no longer needed here,” said Eubank, who only weeks before had ferried battle casualties across the same roads. “Our main purpose is helping the people in greatest need, and that means continuing to the next front alongside the army.”
THE MOST PROMINENT U.S.-led aid work at the battlefront with ISIS is the newly constructed emergency field hospital set up by North Carolina–based Samaritan’s Purse in January. The hospital sits on a heavily fortified 5-acre plot across the highway from Bartella, the devastated Christian town 10 miles east of Mosul. The 54-bed unit has two operating rooms beneath tents, plus its own blood bank and pharmacy. It sits on cleared ground behind two rings of blast walls, with both internal security and a cordon of protection provided by the Iraqi army.
The facility treats only trauma victims, who include civilian casualties from bombings and combat, Iraqi military personnel, and those treated as enemy combatants, such as ISIS fighters. Nearly all arrive from Mosul, where bombed-out bridges and medical facilities make on-site trauma care impossible.
In its first month of operation, medical personnel at the field hospital performed more than 260 surgeries. On the day I visited, the women and children’s ward had 11 patients in recovery, including a 10-month-old girl who had lost both feet in an IED explosion. A boy of about 10 years old was exiting surgery, having had a rod inserted in his leg following shrapnel injuries.
To keep pace with the steady stream of urgent care, the hospital has a steady rotation of mostly American trauma veterans. And each day begins with group devotions.
Edwin Carns, hospital director, likes to say he’s “not a surgeon,” but the 77-year-old emergency physician spent most of his career in the U.S. Army and earned a Distinguished Service Medal in Vietnam. More recently he’s managed crisis care in Haiti and in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak.
“It’s either calm or chaos, there’s no middle ground here, and the largest influx of casualties usually stacks up at the end of the day,” said Carns. “There’s also a palpable sense of God’s presence, and everyone pitches in. It’s not unusual to see the IT guy holding a kid who is dying.”
Trauma surgeon Warren Cooper has worked in Sudan and now is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I’m always in a place that’s in chronic disaster,” he said. For many of the professionals here, it’s their first exposure to mass casualties that include many children. Cooper said “a lot of emotion comes” with trying to treat whole families of wounded.
The field hospital seemingly came into being overnight, much of the facility flown here aboard a DC-8 jet as part of joint effort with the World Health Organization and Iraqi officials. But it’s also the fruit of two decades of work in Iraq providing emergency relief and housing, said Samaritan’s Purse vice president of programs Ken Isaacs: “This is the same dynamic we have used before, getting right behind the front line and helping to address acute needs, but it’s not possible without contacts and experience on the ground.”
Isaacs resists “a growing movement for political actors to put humanitarian pressure on political problems. It’s not going to work. If people want to talk about durable solutions in Iraq, let’s start by treating the people where they are and helping them to live, period. As followers of Christ we have that obligation.”
The presence of a clean, up-to-date hospital in so littered a scene of destruction suggests at least the possibility of restoration and a future for war-ravaged Iraqis.
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