MOSUL, Iraq — Even in the context of the vast destruction left by ISIS everywhere across the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, nothing compares to the staggering sight of Mosul’s Old City, where piles of rubble and overturned cars riddled with bullet holes make up half the landscape of the once-thriving city.
A year later, the dust is barely beginning to settle after Mosul’s liberation in July 2017. While a few wealthier shop owners have patched up their property enough to get things running again, half of the city of 3 million has been flattened, businesses have been lost, homes destroyed, and every week the body count mounts as more rubble is cleared and more deceased are pulled from the dust.
However, while building costs for the Old City alone are expected to be in the billions, for Mosul’s inhabitants, the city’s displaced Christian population in particular, trust will be the hardest thing to repair, if it is even possible at all.
Father Salar Kajo, who oversees the parish of St. George in Teleskoff, where there are still some 400 families from Mosul who refuse to return, told Crux that “people can’t return because it is still dangerous for them. They don’t feel safe.”
Even though the government says the city is secure, “they are liars,” he said, adding that even if they are not active, ISIS and some sympathizers are still present, “but the government doesn’t say this…I have heard many things there.”
While Christians have been resilient in the face of persecution, they are now fed up, Kajo said, adding that “as soon as a Muslim enters Teleskof or one of these villages, it means the end of these villages. I give my word on this.”
“There is no trust, we are not secure, the mentality is different, and they [the government] consider us second-class. How can you treat people like this? Especially in the time of ISIS,” he said, noting how most militants “were neighbors who stole” and turned against Christians.
Christians are unconvinced
Members of an all-Muslim militia who work with local police in Mosul to guard Christian property spoke to Crux, insisting the area is safe. However, Christians themselves appear unconvinced.
Maryam and Wasen Al-Saoor, who are sisters, fled Mosul with gunfire flying over their heads in 2014 three days after ISIS invaded, and they refuse to go back.
Speaking to Crux, Maryam, 21, said “we don’t want to go back, ever. It’s not like the past, everything is destroyed, people are changing…people are different than the past, our neighbors cheated us, so we can’t trust them. If you ask all the Christian people, they will say that.”
Maryam said she has no trust in the people who live in Mosul now, especially those who stayed and lived there under ISIS rule. And she has good reason, since one of their two Muslim neighbors, who had been a family friend for years, joined forces with ISIS once the Al-Saoors fled, and demanded that they hand over their home.
Maryam said that when ISIS attacked, her family stayed inside for three days with no food, no electricity and no water. They had previously fled their home twice before – in 2006 and in 2009 – due to violence and insecurity, but they returned. When ISIS came they decided to flee to Dohuk once they realized the situation would not be quickly resolved.
“We didn’t see them, but we heard the bombs and the shots,” she said, recounting how they hid inside but decided to flee at midnight on the third day, driving with bullets flying overhead as ISIS and police exchanged fire.
“In our area, we saw people coming from the right area walking in the sun and they didn’t know where to go or what to do, they didn’t have anywhere to stay. ISIS took their homes and they left.”
Wasen, 19, said the family at first was told they could stay if they converted or paid a pricey tax, “and if we didn’t do that they would kill us, they would cut off our heads. Our mother’s friend told us to pay…she said you can be Muslim, it’s not a big deal, and you can pay money.”
Instead, the family made their way to neighboring Dohuk, spending eight hours to make what is normally a two-hour drive. After living in Dohuk for four months, the family made their way to Jordan in hopes of getting a fresh start. However, they were not granted refugee status and were given no help from the government, meaning they could not work or attend school as they waited to get out.
After a year, the family made their way back to Erbil so Maryam and Wasen could at least attend school, and where their father and brother had a better chance at getting jobs. Although they are still in Iraq, Maryam said she has her doubts about the security of Mosul.
“We don’t know if it will go back to like it was in the past, because the good people who are Muslims left Mosul and few of them stayed, so we don’t know the other people who are there or where they come from, so we can’t trust anyone who is there.”
Currently there are just 20-21 Christian families left in the city. A Syriac Catholic priest by the name of Emmanuel is desperately trying to get people to return, and a Chaldean bishop and priest are also expected to be appointed to Mosul this week during the church’s synod meeting in Baghdad.
However, according to Maryam, most Christians still distrust Muslims. For most, it is very easy to switch from moderate to ISIS, she said, but “not all of them. There are some people who are nice.”
Wasen said the family is still in touch with their “good neighbors,” who have sent them pictures of their former house, which has been gutted and has bloodstains on the walls.
Maryam said she thinks it is possible for some people to go back to normal, but it will take time. For Muslims who lived in Mosul during ISIS rule, “it’s four years that they are under them, so of course they will need time to be more open-minded,” she said. “They need a long time, because four years is not a short time.”
“If they didn’t do what ISIS said, they would be killed, so they had to do what they were told. But they [also] believe in what they are doing, so if they are believing in what they are doing, it’s hard to change.”
“Before ISIS the situation was okay and it was normal,” she said, “but after ISIS everything was destroyed.”
Looking at the city, it is not hard to understand why many are hesitant to return. With little government intervention over the past 13 months, much of Mosul’s old city is unstable. On average, some 50 bodies are pulled from the rubble every week, and some 1,000 were discovered in the past month alone.
An empty mass grave left by ISIS, which was found holding 52 bodies of people who tried to flee, has been left in its original spot, and a convent which previously housed Dominican sisters and which was turned into a hideout/bomb factory by ISIS has yet to be cleaned, and still stinks of sulfur.
Services remain minimal in much of the old city, and families are living in skeletons of buildings that were bombed and have yet to be secured, meaning they’re at risk of collapse.
In one area of the old city with three churches on the same block – the ancient Syrian Orthodox church of Al-Tahera, the Syriac Catholic cathedral and archbishop’s house – a family walked through the ruins looking for the remnants of their former home, now a pile of rocks.
As she handed over one of her two frozen bottles of water, Amel Aziz explained that even though the family is Muslim, her children went to the Orthodox school. They keep returning to their old home, she said, because despite the condition, they want to move back, since their current monthly rent of 300,000 Iraqi dinar (about $252) – is too expensive.
In another neighborhood, Saif Al-Bajary, a Muslim who said he hates ISIS, lives in the ruins of an old house with his two wives, five children and another family. Before ISIS, he made a decent living as a car trader, but ISIS burned his cars and now he is unemployed, struggling to pay a rent of 75,000 Iraqi dinar ($63).
“Before ISIS we had a good life, but under ISIS it was very difficult. At times, we didn’t have any food, and we had to eat seeds and grains of wheat…the children had to eat stale bread.”
ISIS would kill or beat people who did not comply with their rules, he said, recounting the story of a 16-year-old girl who was slain on the street after she was heard saying a curse word. The men also had to wear long beards, he said, explaining that it took him just “two minutes” to shave his once the militants were defeated.
Prices of food and other staples also soared, he said, with a pack of cigarettes in some places costing between 140,000 to 1 million dinar, roughly $118-840.
Al-Bajary said his family, like many others in the area, hid underground during bombings and missile strikes. However, this was also risky, they said, because if the house was hit, they could be buried. In one case, 27 members of one family died when a bomb fell on their house.
Without work and with his children out of school for the past three years, Al-Bajary said the family wants to move abroad. Asked where they would go, he said “anywhere. Anywhere they will give us a visa.”
Deciding to leave
He’s not alone. Maryam Saad, 20, is finishing high school in Ankawa, the Christian suburb of Erbil, after leaving Mosul in 2002. The family decided to leave because even then “the situation was too difficult” and unstable for Christians, she told Crux.
Asked if she would ever return to Mosul, Saad said no.
“We want to go outside of Iraq, maybe to Australia,” she said.
For the Al-Saoor sisters, there is also the problem of employment, which is another reason they are thinking of moving abroad when they finish their studies.
“For now, we want to finish university, but then maybe we will go out, because the situation is very bad and the economy is very bad. Many people can’t find work…engineers are sitting at home. We can’t stay here without work or anything. Also, sometimes even if you can find a job, they don’t pay the salary.”
Maryam said she has no hope in the government, and that in her view, the political situation in Iraq is getting worse.
Even though general elections were held in May, “we don’t have any government…we had a vote, but all of them lie and all of them cheat. We still don’t have a minister.” Christians, she said, are still treated like second-class citizens.
“Since 2014, we didn’t get any help from the government. If the Church hadn’t helped us, maybe the people would die. They don’t have any money or any place to stay, but the Church and the organizations have helped a lot.”
“We don’t have any rights. Christians have been killed since 2004, 2005, until now,” she said, voicing frustration that in the four years that they have been displaced, “no one listens to us.”
“I don’t know if people outside are thinking of us,” she said, noting that people who have fled to Lebanon or Jordan have been waiting for years to get out.
“We wasted our time because we couldn’t work or go to university. We were just waiting, we didn’t know what would happen,” she said, adding that the situation has not changed.
“Even now, what will happen, we don’t know,” she said.