When terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001, it became a day that most Americans will never forget. June 29, 2014, was that kind of day for Iraq’s small religious communities living in Mosul and the surrounding areas of the Nineveh plains.
This was the day that the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which said it would establish the Caliphate, set out to do just that. Iraq’s religious communities living near Syria pleaded for help as it became clear they would be attacked. By July and into August the Islamic State made its way into Iraq, securing Mosul and the surrounding areas.
The world was faced with the barbarism that establishing “the Caliphate” requires of its devotees. For Iraq’s smaller religious communities, the cost was incalculable.
Mosul fell within 24 hours. At least 1,700 people were killed in the first 10 days. Many of the Christians tried to flee, but the attack came without warning, and some didn’t make it out in time. At first the Islamic State forced the Christians who remained to pay the jizya, a tax that amounted to about $350 a year. But as more foreign fighters came into the city, the nightmare grew worse.
More restrictions were placed on Christians and other groups that the Islamic State considered infidels. It was clear that Christians and other religious minorities would not survive under their rule. Women and children were trafficked, and men were being killed. Mosul was being ethnically and religiously “cleansed.”
The Islamic State placed an N on the homes of Christians to identify where they were. They raided their homes, took all their possessions, and sent them to Syria. They destroyed Christian businesses and stole their goods. According to the Assyrian Aid Society, the Islamic State confiscated at least 8 billion Iraqi dinars from the Christians and used it to continue financing the genocide throughout Iraq.
The Islamic State wiped out every trace of Christianity in Mosul, turning churches into mosques and headquarters for their army; and even destroyed the ancient tomb of Jonah. This biblical prophet was a reminder of God’s work in Nineveh, but who would save Nineveh now?
After conquering Mosul, the Islamic State swept through dozens of villages around Mosul, forcing the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians out of eight villages, the Shabak from 15 villages, and the Yezidis from seven of their villages. With no warning from the local Kurdish Peshmerga, who had said they would protect them, the religious minorities fled for their lives just ahead of Islamic State fighters.
At least 150,000 Yezidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for days without food or water in temperatures up to 122°F. Iraqi helicopters finally began to fly emergency relief in and rescue those they could, but General Ahmed Ithwany, who helped in the campaign, believed that up to 70 percent had died by the time they arrived. According to one eyewitness, “there were bodies everywhere; I don’t know how I escaped.”
Many of those displaced from the villages around Mosul walked at least 17 hours through several checkpoints before finding refuge in Kurdish cities. These families had built businesses and homes, but they left everything behind, including many of the elderly who couldn’t escape on foot and didn’t want to slow down their children’s escape. But the Islamic State quickly forced the elderly to leave as well. No one escaped the nightmare.
One couple in their 70s was forced to walk the 17 hours on foot through the night, fighting off wild dogs that attacked them as they fled. The husband showed me the scars still healing on his back. He showed his hands, which each bore a large sore created as he dragged himself across the desert. His wife said, “I thought we would die out there.”
Ayda and her elderly husband tried to hide in their home when the Islamic State attacked their village. “I’ll never forget the day they found us. They put us on a bus to send us away. But before we could leave, a neighbor pointed to me and made me get off the bus. Another man put a gun to my head as the Sheikh in charge took Christina from my arms. She is only 3 years old! I haven’t seen her since.”
Ayda pleaded, “Please help us find my daughter.” This was a day no mother would ever forget.
Christina is one of more than 5,000 young girls who were captured by the Islamic State to be raped, trafficked, or sold off as child brides and slaves throughout the Middle East. Yezidi leaders know where many of their girls are being held, but so far no military support has come to their aid.
In total, the Islamic State forced at least 600,000 Christians and other small religious communities from their homes in Mosul and throughout the Nineveh plains. Many Arab Muslims sided with the Islamic State in the villages attacked in order to avoid facing death if they remained. For Iraq’s smaller ancient religious communities, the situation is genocide.
Throughout Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, 170,000 displaced people filled churches, parks, old buildings, malls, and homes. About 500,000 people fled to Dohuk and Zakho. They came with nothing but the memories of that fateful day, and their hope for a better future.
As I visited one refugee camp on the grounds of a Chaldean school that now houses hundreds of families, I saw tent 68. On it was this message: “Jesus is the light of the world.”
It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could find hope in the midst of such destruction, but many of the Christians displaced compare their suffering to that of Job and are trusting God to help. One nun caring for the displaced said, “This crisis has forced us to come together again and to leave the distractions of the world behind. We are helping each other as we should and coming closer to God.” One of the boys I met witnessed his Muslim neighbors helping the Islamic State beat another neighbor of his and yet he said, “We are praying for them.”
It’s hard for anyone to imagine losing their home, their business, their community, their possessions, and even their family overnight. And even harder to consider going back to live among neighbors who worked with the Islamic State to take over each village; or to trust a government that abandoned you to be slaughtered.
The Iraqi government sent no one to defend them. Local Kurdish fighters fled. They were left alone with no one to trust.
Now these families, who were once able to take care of themselves, run their own businesses, and save money to get married, are living in tents and dependent on charity to survive one day at a time.
An elderly man from the Kaka’i community conveyed where the hope of most refugees and displaced people now rests. He said, “We have God, and we have the West. That’s it.”
However, international solutions have so far been slow and insufficient. What are the options? Arm the Kurds? Destroy the Islamic State? Feed and house the refugees? Help them return home!
But what will they go back to? Can they trust their country and neighbors? And is it really possible to rebuild again?
The hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by the Islamic State need more than money. They need their dignity, their families, and their hope for a better future.
In 2003 less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population included Assyrian, Chaldean, Yezidi, Shabak, Mandaean, or Kaka’i communities. Within a decade nearly two thirds of the Assyrian and Chaldean communities had either fled the country or been killed. Of the 50,000 Mandaeans, a pacifist religious community that follows the teachings of John the Baptist, there are now less than 4,000 remaining. At least one third of the Yezidi population, a Zoroastrian religious community, has either fled or been killed since the war began. Shabak and Kaka’i have also been targeted by terrorists, who consider all of these communities infidels. These communities are now on the verge of extinction in Iraq.
For the past decade they have been disproportionately affected by the violence. At one point they made up nearly 17 percent of the refugees in surrounding countries.
Of those who remained in Iraq, they tried to survive and maintain their ancient communities. Most Assyrian and Chaldean Christians returned to the Nineveh plains. The Iraqi constitution recognized the historic connection these and the other small religious communities had to this area, and provided a mechanism for them to establish their own provincial government in the Nineveh plains.
Faced with constant discrimination throughout Iraq and Kurdistan, underrepresented in the government, marginalized by Kurdish and Arab society, unable to develop their own natural resources, and constantly attacked by extremist groups, it was the possibility of provincial governance that offered Iraq’s most vulnerable communities hope. In early 2014 the Iraqi Parliament finally began discussing the establishment of the Nineveh plains provincial government. But their hopes were short-lived.
Kurdish leaders opposed the plan and claimed that part of the Nineveh plains was in their territory. Since the Iraqi and Kurdish governments haven’t agreed on the borders of Kurdistan, it is difficult for the Nineveh plains to establish a provincial government. Now that the area has been overrun by the Islamic State, the future of the region is even more uncertain.
As Kurds are given weapons to fight the Islamic State, they will also likely claim control over the Nineveh plains. Once again the small religious communities in the Nineveh plains will be marginalized.
Unable to trust their former neighbors, their government, or the international community, which is now arming the groups opposed to their freedom, Iraq’s religious communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are dependent on the Kurdish areas for their current survival, but they know that it comes with a high price. It means they will never be able to govern themselves and their natural resources, without which they cannot rebuild and sustain their communities in Iraq.
Christians running the camps throughout Erbil all confided that the local Kurdish government was pressuring them to move the refugees into camps outside the city. These camps were not prepared for the winter and would only cause a humanitarian disaster when the weather changed. But Kurdish leaders are trying to show that they can care for the refugees in ways the church can’t in order to obtain international financial and military support.
As a result, many Assyrian and Chaldean Christians want to leave the country. For them, the writing is on the wall. They’ve tried to survive and rebuild, and now it’s clear that this may be impossible.
While other communities are also at risk, most of them want to remain in Iraq. Yezidi leaders are calling for direct military support to regain their areas along the border of Syria, which are outside any territory claimed by the Kurds.
But without a long-term solution, all of these small religious communities face an immediate genocide at the hands of the Islamic State and a slow genocide in the Kurdish region as their lands are taken over by a new government that continues to treat them as second-class citizens and forces them to hide their religious identity.
There is only one way to ensure the survival of Iraq’s ancient religious communities: help the locals regain their land and territorial integrity. If they lose this, their only option is to resettle outside Iraq; and likely no amount of humanitarian assistance will prevent their exodus from the area.
Author: Tina Ramirez
Tina Ramirez is of president of Hardwired, Inc.