Displaced by the armed offensive of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their brutal purge of Yazidis and Christians, along with Sufi, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, from northern Iraq, members of these communities have begun to speak out about their experiences, their longing for security, and their hopes for the future.
The particularly extremist interpretation of Islam that ISIS proclaims poses an existential threat to those with different beliefs. Widespread destruction of shrines, mosques, churches, monasteries and cemeteries is reported as ISIS embarks on a form of regional religious purification that shuns coexistence with people of other faiths.
A briefing by Amnesty International, Ethnic cleansing on historic scale: the Islamic State’s systematic targeting of minorities in northern Iraq, calls the ISIS offensive a genocide, citing several examples of mass killings along with a wave of abductions.
"The massacres and abductions being carried out by the Islamic State provide harrowing new evidence that a wave of ethnic cleansing against minorities is sweeping across northern Iraq," says Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser. "The Islamic State is carrying out despicable crimes and has transformed rural areas of Sinjar into blood-soaked killing fields in its brutal campaign to obliterate all trace of non-Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims."
In more than 20 interviews conducted during three days by a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation that visited northern Iraq at the end of August, few people could imagine the possibility of returning to their homes. A fourteen-year-old Christian girl from a village on the Nineveh Plain, Iraq, when asked what she thought about the future, replies, "There is no future. Da'ish (ISIS) destroyed our future. We are scared to go back."
Together with her family and 60 other displaced families, this Christian girl has found temporary refuge at one of the local churches in Dohuk, Iraq. Another young woman in this community affirms this opinion. “There is no future in Iraq. No safety, nothing here for us to stay. All of us here are so afraid. We don’t want to stay.”
But another Christian woman has a different perspective, tearfully expressing her desire to return to her home in Mosul with her physically disabled husband. "I only want security and safety to go back," she says. “All my friends are Muslims. We grew up together.” She acknowledges the number of people who want to leave Iraq, saying “I don’t judge those who want to leave the country, but myself, I love my city and I want to go back to Mosul.”
But, as one of the women declares, "There is no more trust" among Christians affected by the extremism of ISIS.
Even if a security solution could be achieved through military and police action, and territory reclaimed from ISIS, personal and communal trust may take generations to be re-established.
Displacements, hardships and betrayal
A man who was the last Christian to flee from his village as ISIS forces overtook community after community on the Nineveh plain near Mosul, tells the story of a hasty exit from the village, being given only hours as ISIS instigators exerted their influence on the population. Most troubling for him is betrayal by his close neighbour of 16 years, a Sunni Muslim.
"We’ve shared weddings, condolences, food and drink together," he says. "In the space of half an hour he turned against me saying I am a Nazarene, a non-believer." The man recalls that his neighbours and others wrote the Arabic letter N on the homes of Christians, identifying them as Nazarenes [followers of Jesus] to ISIS fighters as they conducted their purge of the town.
However, not everyone managed to escape. "My heart aches today for the four [Christian] families who stayed in the village," he says, expressing a desire to rescue them from the ISIS occupation. “These are poor people who couldn’t flee and who stayed in the village,” he laments. “We are here safe, we have food and water but we don’t know what their fate is. Are they still alive in there? Are they killed? We don’t know.”
Added to the expulsion and detention of Christians, he reports that ISIS forces desecrated the churches of his village, removing crosses and destroying religious objects. "They transformed the Chaldean church into a religious court. They used the Assyrian church of the East as their own headquarters," he says. "As for the residence of the nuns, it became their community hall."
Despite his neighbor's betrayal, the Christian man says he hopes and wishes to return to his home "even if I will only have bread and water to live," if only security could be assured. But he reports that some of the homes Christians left behind in his village have been burned or wired with explosives.
Escaping conflict, finding refuge
Many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have arrived in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, finding refuge in the cities of Erbil and Dohuk and their surrounding villages. Coordinating the relief effort for displaced persons for the Dohuk Governate in the Kurdistan Region is Haval Mohammed Amedy, head of Emergency Operations. He estimates 400,000 people have sought refuge in the area and says IDPs are housed in 673 schools and nearly all houses of worship.
Although the Christian purge of Mosul and the Nineveh plain seems almost complete, the Yazidi religious group has suffered disproportionately. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) reports that over 1.4 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes since January. Of those, the largest percentage are Yazidi.
The town of Khanke, just north of Dohuk, has swollen from a population of 25,000 to more than 100,000 mostly Yazidi people, fleeing from the genocidal violence of ISIS in Sinjar and elsewhere. Housed in schools, public buildings and local houses, along with a sprawling 60,000-person UNHCR tent encampment on the outskirts of town, few have any hope of a return to homes and settlements still under ISIS control.
A Yazidi man, from a village near Mosul, taking refuge in Khanke near Dohuk, told of a massacre by ISIS fighters of people remaining in his village. Those unable to leave the village and seek refuge elsewhere were without defense. “[O]n the 24th August ISIS attacked them. My father and mother and uncle who couldn’t walk were defeated there. ISIS attacked them and killed them all. They destroyed the religious and sacred places,” he says. His brother went back to the village, and “found them all killed. In addition to my family there were more than 25 people killed with them,” he says, weeping.
Gregg Brekke is a freelance journalist specializing in human rights, global health and issues pertinent to world religions. He is founder of SixView Studios and president of the U.S.-based Associated Church Press.