Be Grateful. Be Alive: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield

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 By Hollie McKay |Featured is the aftermath of an accidental explosion and fire inside a displacement camp in Northern Iraq in the summer of 2015. Those who fled ISIS were trying to save lives but were then forced to flee again. (Photo credit: Hollie McKay)
Editor’s Note: The following passage is excerpted from international affairs/war journalist Hollie McKay’s new book, “Only Cry for the Living: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield,” out March 4.

In the immediate months after the ISIS assault, before the burns of those who had fled the area had scabbed into scars, I went to meet with a group of Christians camped inside a church. Their memories could not be wiped, but they were just beginning to grapple with what had happened.

The whiteboard inside the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region bore a message for the hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes: “Be grateful. Be alive. Be happy. Be careful.”

For many Christians caught in the crossfire, their possessions and homes were erased. Only their memories could not be wiped — not now, not ever. Yet Christianity’s central tenet of forgiveness was a hard sell for the children who, after living much of their lives in relative peace with Muslim neighbors, found themselves homeless and traumatized.

Hundreds of families were living in limbo — living in a sprawling complex of tents outside a house of worship.

“It’s hard to explain what is happening,” Father Daniel Alkhory told me in the predominantly Christian district of Ankawa inside the Kurdish capital of Erbil, a smile gracing his round face and youthful skin. “I was teaching them the parable of Ishmael and Lazarus, talking to them about Heaven and Hell, so I used that to bring up ISIS. I asked them where ISIS will go, and they said, ‘Directly to Hell!’”

Featured is the “Old City” of Mosul soon after the intense US-led bombing campaign to defeat ISIS. The picture was taken in the fall of 2017 amid what was left of the second largest city. (Photo credit: Hollie McKay)
To help bring a sense of understanding and forgiveness to the madness, Father Daniel told the children a story of a Christian in Mosul who had been living next to a Muslim man for more than twenty years when one day, the Muslim man suddenly threatened him, ordering him to leave Mosul within twenty-four hours simply because he was a Christian.

“So, the Christian man started to pack his things, but before leaving, he said he wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye to that neighbor,” he recounted. “His neighbor opened the door and was really angry and shouting at him, ‘Why are you here? I told you to leave Mosul!’ The Christian man said he wouldn’t leave without first saying goodbye. His Muslim neighbor started to cry and promised to protect him.”

Throughout the enormous swath of Syrian and Iraqi land controlled by ISIS, the homes and churches of Christians had been looted and burned to the ground. Before, Christians in Iraq once numbered around 1.5 million, or about five percent of the population. But current estimates of their number hovered around 200,000; their numbers of people depreciated by murder, forced conversions, and flight — mostly at the hands of Islamic radicals. Those who remained refused to renounce their beliefs, even under the threat of death.

In a gentle sing-song voice, Father Daniel spoke in rhythms of the children’s trauma. He conversed in a way that made me think he was still childlike himself. Cocooned in the perpetual cycle of trying to find the light in the darkest corner, of trying naively to believe that, while Iraq had seen one war morph into another war for decades, the end to their suffering would soon arrive.

“They’ve lost their hopes and dreams and we try to help them understand that life keeps going,” he said. “A child is like a flower; we can shape them. We must take care of them now. Otherwise, the next generation of ISIS could come from these children.”

Father Daniel moved slowly toward the sunlight sinking in the west.

“Through all their sadness and depression, they wanted revenge,” he continued. “I knew I needed to build a unique environment for them.”

That unique environment consisted of time spent on artistic endeavors, such as drawing and creating shapes to express their feelings and frustrations, as well as dancing and outings to play in the park. The children had recently gone on an excursion to see their first-ever 3D movie, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” at the local cinema.

But, of course, Mass and Bible study also made up critical components of every day.

With no realistic prospect of returning to their homes anytime soon, the thousands of displaced families strewn across the Kurdish region had no choice but to start their lives from scratch in unfamiliar territory.

“Father, when can we go home? When can I see my friends?” one young boy quipped, having waited anxiously for a lull in our conversation to launch his query. Refusing to allow doubt to fill the vacuum of delay, Father Daniel instantly responded, telling the boy that he should now make new friends at the center.

“And maybe one day you will go home and meet your old friends once again,” Father Daniel enthused, forever drawing the light from the darkest crevices. “And you will have double the friends than you had before.”

Hollie McKay is a war crimes investigator and foreign policy expert. She worked for Fox News Digital as a journalist covering terrorism, warfare, and crimes against humanity for more than 14 years and has interviewed survivors of sex slavery, torture, and forced child jihadist training. You can preorder her new book, “Only Cry for the Living: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield,” here.