Iraq: Christians who fled ISIL fearful to return home

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As anti-ISIL operations near Mosul continue, many are sheltering at camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Adam Lucente
Soldiers with the Nineveh Plain Forces on a training exercise in Tel Eskof, Iraq [Adam Lucente/Al Jazeera]Soldiers with the Nineveh Plain Forces on a training exercise in Tel Eskof, Iraq [Adam Lucente/Al Jazeera]

Baqofah, Iraq – Broken tools and damaged vehicles line the narrow streets of the Iraqi Christian village of Baqofah.

Electricity flickers on and off in the homes, most of which have been trashed. Mortars fired by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) lie just outside the village walls.

Protecting religious minorities in Iraq

Like many Christian villages in Iraq’s Nineveh region, Baqofah was seized by ISIL and ransacked in 2014, only to be retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters soon afterwards. While the area has remained relatively calm since then, neighbouring Tel Eskof recently came under attack again by ISIL suicide bombers and snipers. ISIL-occupied Batnay, meanwhile, is just a few kilometres away.

The violence has prompted many Iraqi Christians in the area to flee to camps for internally displaced people throughout Iraq’s Kurdish region. As anti-ISIL operations near Mosul continue, many are reluctant to return home.

“The first thing we ask for is safety. We need our own forces to protect us after the liberation,” Mansour Sharbil, who fled from the Christian town of Qaraqosh and is now staying at Erbil’s Ankawa 2 camp for internally displaced people, told Al Jazeera. The camp, which sits next to a camp called Ankawa 1, currently hosts around 5,500 displaced Iraqi Christians, who live in caravans and subsist on aid from NGOs and churches.

“When they are liberated, we’ll return,” added camp resident Ibrahim Shaba Lalo, who is also from Qaraqosh. “But without international protection, it will be very hard to return.”

This year, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army began operations to retake the area surrounding Mosul from ISIL, including some Christian-majority parts of Nineveh. Residents have started to return to some villages, while others remain in the hands of ISIL. Still others are uninhabited, serving as bases for the Peshmerga and Christian paramilitary groups.

Some camp residents expressed frustration that the US-led anti-ISIL coalition has so far failed to restore safety to their villages. But on the frontlines in Baqofah and Tel Eskof, Christian paramilitaries say they are ready to protect their villages after ISIL is pushed out of the broader area.

It’s like living in prison here. We want to see our homes.

Shaba Lalo, displaced Iraqi

We’re ready any time,” said Safaa Khamro, a soldier in the Nineveh Plain Forces, a Christian paramilitary group. He blamed political squabbling, including a disagreement between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish government over who has jurisdiction in the area, for the slow pace of progress.

“The political crisis between Baghdad and the [Kurdistan Regional Government] is the reason we haven’t taken [this territory back] yet,” Khamro told Al Jazeera.

Brigadier-General Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, media director at the Ministry of Peshmerga, said the timeline for retaking Greater Mosul was not the Peshmerga’s decision. “The international coalition and the Iraqi army will decide the start,” Helgurd told Al Jazeera.

“The main reasons Mosul hasn’t been liberated lie with the Iraqi army, because up to now, they are not ready to start.”

From the Iraqi army’s perspective, on the other hand, the battle for Mosul is moving along as planned. “Definitely the Iraqi army is ready to take the city [Mosul] from ISIL, and we have expelled them from part of the area south of the city,” Brigadier-General Firas Bashar, spokesman for the Iraqi army’s Liberation of Nineveh Operations command told Al Jazeera. Operations in this area began last March.

Bashar paints peshmerga-Iraqi army coordination in a more positive light than the Kurdish and Christian fighters in Tel Eskof. “Our relationship with the Peshmerga is one of permanent coordination,” he added. “This is because ISIL kills all who fight them, whether they’re Muslim, Christian or Yazidi.”

Romeo Hakari, secretary-general of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, which is affiliated with the Nineveh Plain Forces, said international cooperation was necessary to secure Nineveh’s liberation.

“We need to wait for international cooperation,” Hakari told Al Jazeera from his Erbil office. “The decision is not a local one; it’s in the West.”

Mortars fired by ISIL at the Peshmerga and Dwekh Nawsha litter the ground in Baqofah, Iraq [Adam Lucente/Al Jazeera]

Back in Baqofah, a Peshmerga soldier sits in a central village booth, holding an AK-47. Just outside the village walls, a Peshmerga unit and fighters with Dwekh Nawsha, an allied Assyrian Christian paramilitary group, guard the perimeter from inside two local homes.

“We guard Baqofah all day and night,” said Samir Oraha, a Dwekh Nawsha leader. A large pair of binoculars sits atop their base for this purpose, trained towards ISIL-occupied Batnay.

“Our relationship is very good with the Christians,” said General Tarek Suleiman, who serves next door with the Peshmerga in Tel Eskof. “We work together like brothers.”

Nineveh’s Christians, meanwhile, eagerly await the day they can safely return home to their villages. Many residents of the Ankawa 2 camp do not work, citing a lack of opportunities for displaced Iraqis.

“It’s like living in prison here,” Lalo said. “We want to see our homes.”

Source: Al Jazeera