The fatal ferry collapse in Mosul on March 21 was a tragedy felt across all of Iraq. The incident underscored a reality which Christians who have returned to the Nineveh Plains have long contested with: the presence of Iranian-backed militias.
As the country struggled to grasp what went wrong with Mosul's ferry, it quickly became apparent that Hashd al-Shaabi's mafia type management of the Nineveh Plain's infrastructure had something to do with it. This militia is part of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), who played a significant role in the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Nineveh Plains.
However, the defeat of ISIS left the militia without purpose and seeking to establish an institutional presence in the region. The Mosul ferry incident was, in many ways, evidence of their success at controlling and profiting off of the massive infrastructure needs faced by those who have returned to the Nineveh Plains.
Christians have long warned about the daily struggle of life under Hashd al-Shaabi. At first, the militia's presence was an indicator of looming demographic change. One believer displaced by ISIS, Kamal, explained, "ISIS resulted in a lot of negative points on the side of society. The society became even more diverse than before."
"The Nineveh Plains used to be protected by its own people. Now, a lot of armed militia from the south, supported by Iran, have a presence in our area," he continued.
Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in Bartella. Before ISIS, Bartella was a thriving Christian village located just a few minutes away from the largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains. Today, the neighboring Christian city is busy rebuilding. But in Bartella, the streets remain empty of Christians.
Lara is originally from Bartella, but she has not returned. She said, "Bartella is the most targeted area for these militias. They are trying to change the demographic distribution of this particular village by making Christian life there very difficult, or even purchasing their houses if needed."
An example many point to is the decision in September 2017 to open an Imam Khomeini School, named after Iran's former Supreme Leader, just on the outskirts of Bartella. The presence of such a school so close to a Christian village would have been unheard of before ISIS. But with the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi and other Iranian-backed groups, these kinds of activities were quickly becoming the norm.
As Hashd al-Shaabi further solidified their presence in formerly Christian areas, their influence on reconstruction deepened. Many Christians have returned, but are frightened of the possibility that ISIS would resurrect itself. "We should go back to our history. We never experienced a stable situation during the past six decades... ISIS 2.0 is something possible," said one believer.
Another added, "I think ISIS is still in Iraq, the only difference is they threw [down] their weapons and they will pick them back up at any weak point."
Sensing this fear, Hashd al-Shaabi used it to further solidify its presence in the Nineveh Plains, especially in Christian areas. "Hashd always takes bribes from Christians who have shops, pharmacies, clinics, etc.," explained a local businessman from Qaraqosh. "Their main excuse for taking the money is that they are protecting our village. At the other side, Hashd facilitates life for the Shabak since they are Shia Muslims. They make the process for Shabak very easy."
Christian small business owners are not the only ones being targeted. Even those who are attempting the basics of rebuilding their lives in the Nineveh Plains are at risk. Ra'afat decided to move his family back to Qaraqosh following their displacement, but still needed to make regular trips to Erbil in order to find items necessary for his family's survival.
The trip means passing through several checkpoints controlled by various and sometimes competing paramilitary forces. Some of these checkpoints are controlled by Hashd al-Shaabi, who regularly causes him the most complications. One day, he was returning to Qaraqosh and had electrical equipment in his vehicle. When the militia noticed the equipment, they correctly assumed that Ra'afat had bought these materials through an aid assistance program.
Hashd al-Shaabi then wrongly assumed that this meant Ra'afat had extra funds to spare, and insisted on being paid by Ra'afat if he were to proceed home through the checkpoint. "I got stuck at a Hashd checkpoint for hours," recalled Ra'afat. "I was begging them to pass, but they didn't respond. They didn't have reason to keep me waiting, except to make our lives harder. At the end, they took money to let me in."
Sadly, Ra'afat's story is not unique. A lack of stability and extortion by those who allege to provide security have prompted many Christians to again leave the Nineveh Plains. Explained one believer, "There are two types of people right now. Some are looking to go back to Ankawa (in Kurdistan); others are trying to sell their houses in Qaraqosh and Bartella and purchase in Ankawa."
Christians were not directly impacted by the ferry disaster in Mosul. But they have long been warning about the issues which laid underneath the incident. Hashd al-Shaabi, and other militias, control much of daily life in the Nineveh Plains. Their control may not be readily violent in a direct way which mirrors ISIS, but their activities do have serious consequences for all Iraqis.
As Ra'afat said, "I think we need security beside jobs; pray for us."