By Katrin Kuntz in Qaraqosh, Iraq
It was the evening of Tuesday, June 10 when Salam Kihkhwa walked into a mobile phone shop in the Qaraqosh city center to purchase more minutes for his phone. Kihkhwa surfs the Internet for several hours each day and was carrying an iPhone 5s in his hand as he navigated his way past brackish puddles on the edge of the road. He set a few wrinkled dinar notes down on the counter to pay for a pack of Winchesters. Just at that moment, he recalls, he heard the scream: “The jihadists are in the city!”
Salam no longer remembers where the scream came from or whether it was a man or a woman. But he knows he left his cigarettes and money on the counter, grabbed his phone and made a run for it. Hundreds of others joined him, and the crowd kept swelling as it dashed through the streets of Qaraqosh.
“They’re coming,” the people fleeing yelled, warning others along the way. They ran into their houses — and the bells of Qaraqosh’s 12 churches began to ring.
Yet the day that the residents of Qaraqosh thought that the radical Islamist militia of terrorist Abu Bakr a-Baghdadi had entered the city turned out to be just one fear-filled day among many. And the situation this week appears to be worsening.
A week after his trip to the shop, Salam is sitting on a sofa in his small home, a wooden cross hanging on the wall behind him. His mother Sabria has set a meal of chicken and couscous on the table while his father Samir brings glasses of ice water. “God, we thank you for this meal,” they say. “Please stand by us.”
Salam, their only son, is 28 years old, and wears a lemon-colored t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and sunglasses to protect his eyes. Salam has suffered from poor vision since surviving a bombing attack in Mosul four years ago. Since then, he’s had a lot of time on his hands. He only works occasionally — sometimes at local gas stations, others on his computer at home. Otherwise he teaches himself different English accents, reads books about physics and energy production and, now and then, the Bible.
A Bastion of Catholic and Orthodox Christians
Salam and his parents are Catholic. Their hometown, Qaraqosh, is located some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Mosul in northern Iraq between craggy mountains and the Nineveh plains. Iraq is a culturally divided country, and it’s in cities like Qaraqosh where this division is most evident. There are few places in the Middle East that are home to as many Christians as the population of 40,000 residing here. In Qaraqosh, they have established 12 churches that rise above the city like stone sentinels. They include names like Tahira, MarZena, Saint Behnam et Sara, and they count both Catholics and Orthodox Christians among their followers.
Each church looks different from the other, rising above the low-rise homes of this desolate city. Qaraqosh’s roots go back to the biblical times of Mesopotamia, with history flowing between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Babylon, Ur and Nineveh, places that play a role in the Old Testament, are all located in modern-day Iraq, a cradle of civilization and once a place of creation. Today, however, the streets of Qaraqosh are filled with trash and a pungent smell in the air.
In these days of terror, which have shown Iraq’s extreme fragility, one aspect of life in Qaraqosh has overshadowed all others: danger. Qaraqosh is home to an Iraqi minority that is disliked by Baghdadi’s jihadists. “We shouldn’t be living here any longer,” says Salam.
Two weeks ago, radical Islamist ISIS militants seized control of Mosul and then proceeded to advance to within seven kilometers of the Christians. The people of Qaraqosh have been living in a state of fear ever since. The first invasion reports turned out to be exaggerated and the jihadists still haven’t entered the city, despite heavy fighting on Wednesday. But the fear remains real. “For two days, my parents and I barricaded ourselves inside our home,” Salam says. He peers out through the iron bars covering the windows overlooking a garden with six dried-out cucumber plants. There’s not much else in sight.
‘It’s Dumb that We’re Still Here’
He didn’t see, for example, how 1,500 heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga fighters had come in from Erbil and taken positions at the edge of the city. Soldiers with the Iraqi army had only been stationed at forward posts near Qaraqosh which they abandoned after the fall of Mosul. For a time, Qaraqosh had been left completely defenseless. “We’ve felt a little bit safer since the Kurds got here,” Salam’s mother says. “But the very fact that they have to be here in the first place is scary for us.”
Qaraqosh has simultaneously become a safe haven and a prison for locals. Around half the population had already fled to the Kurdish city of Erbil by last week, say those who have stayed. Many more left on Wednesday following battles between ISIS and the Peshmerga on the outskirts of town, according to news reports.
Of those who have stubbornly remained, Salam had this to say last week: “It’s dumb that we’re still here.”
Salam spent his childhood in Baghdad and knew from an early age that he wanted an education. As Baghdad sank into chaos under Saddam Hussein, Salam read books about Albert Einstein at home and won competitions on questions about religion. For years, he longed to become a priest.
Later, when his family moved to Qaraqosh, Salam joined a Protestant sect and handed out Bibles to Muslims in Mosul, a potentially deadly provocation. He liked the idea of having a future as a clergyman. He though it would give him all the time in the world for learning. But his mother ultimately talked him out of the idea. “I want grandchildren,” she says.
For several days now, a member of the Kurdish Peshmerga with broad shoulders and a loaded assault rifle has been standing guard near a window in front of Salam’s home. Salam has been having trouble sleeping at night since the man arrived. He fears ISIS fighters will fire at the Kurd and, in the process, also strike his house.
The story of Qaraqosh is also the story of rearmament. Even though more than 800,000 of the 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq have fled the country over the past 20 years, Qaraqosh remained a bastion of stability.
On March 20, 2003, the day the Iraq war began with the bombardment of Baghdad, priests in Qaraqosh summoned their people and handed them wooden staffs they could use to defend their city. Over the years, they acquired arms, uniforms and training. Today, some 1,000 Christian fighters were already at the edge of the city when the Peshmerga arrived to help. The city’s protective force is its most important employer. It’s now the men’s job to prevent the ISIS from burning down the churches, raping their women and shooting their children.
‘We Have to Protect the Christians’
Qaraqosh is located between Mosul and the Kurdish city of Erbil, there are, of course, questions about the motives of the Kurds, who have deployed troops here. Are they acting purely for humanitarian reasons?