Iraq: As IS is driven out, Christians dream of returning home

  • Written by:

John Newton
Building destroyed in Qaraqosh – last Christian majority town in Iraq image: ACN//Jako Klamer
The cost of rebuilding Christian villages destroyed by Daesh (ISIS) in northern Iraq could exceed £160 million (US$200 million), according to a survey carried out by a Catholic charity. But, with some Christians already going back to the Nineveh Plains, the report revealed a growing appetite among the displaced communities to go home.

The study, by Aid to the Church in Need, which looked at 12 Christian villages, found that 11,704 homes had suffered damage – including torching – of which 669 were completely destroyed.

ACN’s Middle East Projects Coordinator Father Andrzej 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. He said: “Of course, ACN will support reconstruction, but we have to work together with other charities – alone it would be impossible to manage this.”

Fr Halemba added: “We were expecting the 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.”

Up to 1,000 people have returned to the Nineveh town of Telskuf, which – along with other parts of the region – was under Daesh control from August 2014 until November 2016.

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. The children are ferried 15 minutes to the town of Alqosh for school. As part of the ACN survey, 1,500 displaced families who sought sanctuary in Erbil were asked whether they wanted to return to their villages now they have been liberated.

Of the 1,308 respondents, 87 percent indicated that they might be willing to return – with 41 percent saying that they definitely wanted to go back. Fr Halemba said: “Hope is coming back to the Nineveh Plains. Despite the many urgent questions that need clarification, people are willing to return to their villages.”

The survey also revealed the extent to which those seeking sanctuary in Erbil had suffered at the hands of Daesh. The survey found that 57 percent had had possessions plundered, and just over a quarter (25.46 percent) had their papers stolen.

There are still 12,000 families in Erbil who depend on ACN-backed aid.

The report comes after aid programme coordinator Stephen Rasche last week addressed UK Government officials, parliamentarians and media, highlighting the need for more emergency aid for the communities displaced to Kurdish northern Iraq.

The ACN study also looked at the damage done to social institutions such as schools, clinics and church buildings, but only the data on private homes has been processed.

Describing the painstaking process of collecting the information, Fr Halemba said: “With the help of satellite pictures, the team identified each house in each village in the Nineveh Plain recovered from ISIS. The houses we are speaking about belong to Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldeans and some mixed villages as well.”

“Finally, it is very important to properly collate the documentation of the destruction and the violent acts of persecution so that, in some way, a sense of justice and peace can return – and to assure this never happens again. These people also rely on the Church – they look to the Church as a sign of security and stability – and so ACN has to help religious Sisters and priests to go back with their flocks. ACN has to support these people in this decisive and historical moment for Christians in Iraq.”

Source: ACN