Military policemen wander through the burned-out interior of Iraq’s largest church which is severely damaged. PHOTO |IRIN
IRIN--Sitting outside a cafe in Erbil, Ammar is chain-smoking despite his hacking cough. “I will never go back to Mosul, even after IS is finished,” he promises. “Mosul has been ruined for me and my family forever.”
The 47-year-old father of three recalls the night in August 2014 when, within 24 hours of so-called Islamic State (IS) taking control of the city, he packed his family into the car and fled to Erbil’s enclave of Ainkawa, where more than 50,000 Christians like him sought refuge.
“We were searched at an IS checkpoint and they took everything, even my daughters’ earrings,” he tells IRIN. “My wife was terrified they would seize our daughters and couldn’t stop shaking, even afterwards. We arrived in Erbil with just the car and my mobile phone, which I hid in my sock.”
Ammar’s wife, deeply traumatised, suffered a stroke a few months later and remains partially paralysed. The only medication he can afford to buy her is paracetamol.
“In Mosul, I had everything: a successful business – making signs for shops – a house, two cars, and a workshop. It’s all destroyed now. I lost everything in an instant, just like that,” Ammar says, clicking his fingers.
It will likely be months before Mosul itself is liberated, but, in the lead-up to the offensive on the city, Iraqi armed forces gained control of numerous outlying areas formerly under IS-control, including several Christian towns.
However, there is little for priests and their former parishioners to return to. IS militants carried out widespread and merciless destruction, desecrating churches, looting graveyards, and burning houses. Many of Iraq’s beleaguered Christians – a population estimated to be between 300,000 and 400,000, down from 1.3 million 20 years ago – are still too fearful to even contemplate returning to their homes.
“We’ve lost everything and there’s no future for us Christians in Iraq,” says Ammar. “I think about dying and death, and I think it would be better than this.”
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