Samir Gedhya never wanted to leave his home in Qaraqosh for the unknown, even when the Islamic State group was almost at his doorstep, sweeping through the towns of Iraq. As the menace to Qaraqosh loomed, his eldest son Faraj, then 16, decided to flee to France, entering by a hazardous and illegal boat journey with the aim of later seeking to move his family there. Samir and his wife, Shaymaa, decided they would take the longer, safer and legal route to France together with their two younger sons.
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Just before IS penetrated Qaraqosh in August 2014, the Assyrian Christian family fled to Erbil Governorate, finding themselves on the streets of the city of Ankawa without a roof over their heads. After a week, they arrived at Mart Shmoni refugee camp, which hosted 15,000 people, then moved onto Ankawa shopping mall, which had opened its doors to 4,000 refugees. Years later, the memory of scabies, a contagious skin infection that had spread throughout the mall, makes Samir's body crawl, even though he did not contract it.
In February 2016, upon being granted official permission, the family travelled to France and stayed there almost two years. Then, after Qaraqosh was liberated from IS and it was deemed to be safe to return, they packed their bags and made their way home. Faraj chose to remain in France.
"In December 2017 we returned to 'our Holy Land', Qaraqosh," says Samir. "We were expecting to witness a disaster created and left by IS. However, when we entered our city, I was re-born and I still have that feeling. I could not sleep properly even a single night in France. I don't regret that we returned at all."
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Of the around 9,000 families to leave Qaraqosh, over 5,000 have returned, according to the Christian charity Open Doors International. The city, also called Baghdeda in the Syriac language, used to be home to 50,000 Assyrian Christians (97 per cent of the city's population) before the invasion of IS. Amidst razed churches and ransacked dwellings, these people seek to resurrect their normal lives. Their principal concern has continuously been security.
When IS attacked their towns, this ancient Christian minority in Iraq felt betrayed by everyone, from the Iraqi army to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who abandoned the Nineveh Plains to their Muslim neighbours, many of whom collaborated with IS, Samir believes.
"In the Bible Jesus said: 'You will be hated because of me' and they showed that we were hated because we are Christians," says Samir, "Our Muslim neighbours, who participated in the looting of our houses and who cooperated with IS, now seem to feel guilty. They reassure us that they are not part of it anymore."
Caught between IS and its supporters, Assyrians realised that the only succour they would receive was from their own people. In the autumn of 2014, the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), a Christian Assyrian security force, was created to resist IS.
The 500 men
The security of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, as well as of neighbouring Bartella and Karamles, is now managed by the NPU's 500 soldiers. All of them are residents of the Nineveh Plains and members of the Chaldean and Syriac Churches. The NPU fought alongside the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces in the liberation of the Nineveh Plains.
"There are thousands who want to volunteer to serve in the army but the Iraqi government does not give permission," Athra Kado, the Media Director of the NPU, told World Watch Monitor. "If the security of a town or a village is not controlled by our people, we cannot trust them; we don't trust the government."
Samir says that his middle son, Yousif, 18, is on his way to join the NPU. The only Christian army unit in Iraq embodies the hope of Assyrians for a safer and more secure future.
Lack of trust in the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has always been an issue for the Assyrian community. "If the level of trust towards the authorities was very low even before the IS invasion, now there is no trust whatsoever," Afram Yakoub, a board member of the Assyrian Confederation in Europe, told World Watch Monitor.
He pointed to the various sectors in which he says Iraqi Assyrians face neglect and discrimination on a daily basis, from education and employment to the judicial system.
"The general trend is that there is no basic democracy: Assyrians and other minorities are left outside of decision-making processes in the Nineveh Plains, even though they are the majority," said Afram Yakoub. "Assyrians don't get government jobs; Assyrian schools never receive the full funding they are entitled to or the textbooks they need; the water and electricity supply is weaker for the Assyrian community; foreign aid that is pouring into Northern Iraq is not handled by Christians and is somehow directed to non-Assyrians."
The areas governed by the KRG see the authorities passively resisting judicial verdicts made in favour of Christians by neglecting to implement them, he says. Alongside its policy of 'Kurdification' of Northern Iraq, the KRG also imposes a curriculum upon Assyrian schools, says Yakoub. He describes this as 'humiliating': "For example, in history books there is a chapter where the Kurd Simko Agha, who assassinated the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East during the Assyrian genocide immediately after the First World War, is presented as a hero."
Discrimination against Christian women is not brazen but it does exist: the concept of 'honour and shame' and other Islamic practices are indirectly imposed on Assyrian women as well, Yakoub explains.
A dream that unites
Approximately half a million Assyrians, out of a global population of 1.5 million, live in Europe today. The Assyrian Confederation of Europe not only co-ordinates donations and other support from the Assyrian diaspora to Assyrians in Iraq and Syria, but it also pursues a political agenda. This involves attempts to influence powerful countries to put pressure on the Iraqi government to grant the Nineveh Plains the status of an autonomous Assyrian administrative province.
Assyrians believe that only autonomy with an Assyrian governor would guarantee the continued existence of the indigenous Assyrian community in the Nineveh Plains, so that the decisions concerning various aspects of their lives are made by "their people".
"Our ethnicity and our Christian identity are interconnected," says Athra Kado of the NPU. "We can't practise Christianity if we don't have our language and our land. We don't want Kurds or Arabs to get involved in deciding our destiny, nor do we want them to fight with each other to get the Nineveh Plain. Historically, it belongs to Assyrians and Yazidis."
This campaign, however, has stalled. "We have had zero results so far," says Afram Yakoub of the Confederation. "Influential countries are not interested in us."
For now, this Christian community clear the rubble from the streets left behind by IS, re-build their houses and outline their plans for the Nineveh Plains.
"My life is now here," says Samir, a father of three sons. "I wanted to come back so much. I wanted to live my traditions, with my people. There is so much beauty around me, despite the ruins."