When ISIS stormed into the villages of Karamless and Qaraqosh in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains on August 6, 2014, the Feast of the Transfiguration took on a whole new meaning for Christians, with ISIS burning and looting their homes and churches while inhabitants fled for their lives.
Today, four years later, some of those Christians have slowly staggered back to their homes.
The “transfiguration” of their charred villages is a process that continues to make headway thanks to the “Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project,” organized and led by local churches and supported by donors such as the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus.
When Father Paolo Thabet Mekko fled his home village of Karamless on August 6, 2014, he left just two hours before ISIS arrived, and he took with him only the consecrated hosts from his parish and a few historic manuscripts as he left his city to an uncertain fate.
When Karamless was liberated in October 2016, Thabet was one of the first to come back, and “destruction was everywhere.”
“We had 756 houses; 241 burned, 100 destroyed, and all the houses thieved and looted and partially damaged, so it was a horrible condition,” he said, noting that many people who began to come back were physically ill at seeing the state of their homes and property.
However, knowing that people would need to come back, he jumped into action and began creating a plan to help rebuild the village, which has been made possible largely thanks to the Knights of Columbus.
(The Knights of Columbus are a principal partner of Crux.)
So far, some 420 of the more than 800 Christian families have returned, as well as 94 Muslim families. Both churches in the village were burned but have since been remodeled.
The properties that were most seriously damaged under ISIS control still exude a stench like sulfur and are the last to be repaired, since there is a rush to repair the least-damaged houses in order to allow people to return.
With basic services such as jobs, electricity, access to good drinking water and education still lacking, the village is struggling to get on its feet.
The church in the town runs projects to help with those necessities, to create “a good life and a good way to be and stay here,” Thabet said, adding that he is anxious to finish rebuilding the whole city, “but that means we need more money, more aid and more help, and we need more people to come.”
To repair an average house costs anywhere between $8-10,000, he said, noting that to finish the rest of the city, including the building of a new school and playground in addition to the houses, could cost up to $2-3 million, since the most seriously damaged properties are the last to be repaired.
Many families who fled to places such as Erbil or Dohuk have found better jobs, and some are still fearful to return, he said, but stressed that “if the zone would be developed and grown and protected more, the families would be encouraged to return.”
Thabet and many locals who have come back to live in the village, a good number of whom are retired, are anxious to find ways to entice people to return, and are hoping to create more jobs by building small factories and farms.
“If the families go back without jobs, that means there is no life,” Thabet said, but stressed that whether the village ever thrives again comes down not just to the resources available but also to the locals themselves.
“It also depends on the families. We have many houses where the owner is now living in the U.S. or in Australia or Europe, what will happen with these houses?” he asked, explaining that if they are repaired, either the owner will come back or they could be sold to other families who want to return, but who still have no homes.
For Stephan Kado, a retired military officer who returned to Karamless with his wife and two children, and who now works as a carpenter in the area, development can’t happen unless people return.
“People don’t want to return, but if Christians don’t return, these villages will be taken over by other people…we cannot do anything without people [here],” he told Crux.
He thanked the Church for the work they are doing, saying, “Thank God we have something…a house, a roof over our head. Praise God.”
Similarly, in neighboring Qaraqosh – also called “Baghdeda” in Aramaic, the once-bustling city dubbed the “Christian capital” of Iraq – locals face similar challenges.
Though livelier than Karamless, with just over half of the town’s pre-ISIS population of 50,000 having returned to the village, only 35 percent of damages have been repaired.
Father Georges Jahola, who is in charge of coordinating the reconstruction plan in the village, said the majority of houses not heavily damaged under ISIS have been repaired in order to allow families to return for the start of school in September.
“Also, many people can’t pay more rent in Erbil, in Ankawa, so they left and they’ve come back here,” he said.
Given demand for Mass and the other sacraments, some churches have been reopened quickly while others, such as Sts. Benham and Sara, remain charred and graffitied on the inside, and houses with more serious damages have not yet been repaired.
Jahola also lamented the lack of infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity, as well as a lack of jobs, noting that “many don’t have a job here, so they stay in Erbil or in Kurdistan.”
The government, he said, has been of little help. So far, they have given “zero percent” support to the rebuilding efforts, which are carried out entirely by the Church.
The Church, on the other hand, “has always had the main role to support the people. Now we have people and a database, and the government, they don’t. Maps, a database, tables, information about houses. We have very updated information about houses and families.”
However, for the city to really thrive again, political support is needed, he said, asking Western nations to get involved “to support minorities here through the law and constitutions to protect this population.”
“We need this now for this system, and we also need stability, political and in a sense, to respect the Christian presence here.”
For both Thabet and Jahola, Christians returning to villages such as Karamless, Qaraqosh and others not only need jobs, but the assurance that they will be protected and treated as equal citizens.
“It is very, very bad for us,” Thabet said. “We are a special community in our cultural, ethnic community, so we have the right to be protected, to continue our services. We’ve been here since 5-6,000 years ago. We have our language, behaviors and religion, [and] it’s our right to be here and to live our lives.”
Likewise, Jahola said Christians will never thrive if they are not respected or given rights.
“They want to develop their life,” he said, adding that at times, Christians are not only treated badly, but used as political pawns to promote certain agendas.
There are some people, he said, who “want to take away our lands and houses, so there are many political agendas to make demographical changes. It’s very, very dangerous for Christians,” he said.
Father Roni Momika, a young priest from Qaraqosh, said that part of keeping people from being discouraged by the challenges is not just attending to their practical needs, but their spiritual ones as well.
“We started to rebuild the houses, we started to rebuild the stones, but we don’t want to forget that we want to rebuild inside the person, because when we rebuild the person we can rebuild all of Qaraqosh, all the Christians here,” he told Crux.
Momika, who led a three-day youth retreat that closed just in time to mark the August 6 anniversary of when ISIS invaded their village, said he wants to encourage his people, especially the youth who attend university.
“Young people are the stones on which we can rebuild the Church,” he said, noting that after the three-day event – which was attended by four Syriac-Catholic bishops and high number of priests – he was approached by several young people who voiced gratitude, saying they could tell that “the priests and the nuns, they are with us, they are not far.”
“That made me so happy,” Momika said. “All the time I am visiting the families and I am looking for what they need, and that makes me do these things,” he said, adding that he believes clergy must continue to work closely with the youth.
For Momika, Christianity is about closeness, and “the way you feel Jesus Christ with you … Now we want to say to our people, ‘We give you life.’ I want to put my people between my arms and the holy Bible above us.”