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Qaraqosh Christians tell of IS terror in Iraq

Residents who fled Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, talk of mass fear as Islamic State gunmen took control this week
A statue of Jesus Christ on the bag of an Iraqi Christian who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush (AFP)

Fadi Lemeer and his family were attending church for Eid Atajelli when the shooting started. They could hear the exchange of fire getting closer and closer as the service came to a close. Too terrified to step outside the church, Leemer and his family took shelter and hoped for the best. By 6pm the bellowing cries of “Allahu Akhbar!” could be heard, that’s when he knew he had to run. His worst fear was realised, his city was about to fall to Islamic State militants.

Lemeer and 15 others didn’t grab a single item, they began to flee Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, on foot. They walked for an hour before a man with a pick-up truck stopped to help. Half an hour later the truck broke down—Lemeer and the 15 others began to walk again. It took another five hours on foot before they reached Iraqi Kurdistan’s border.

“I was in Qaraqosh and everything was fine, the Peshmerga [Kurdish army] was protecting the city, but then everything fell apart,” Lemeer told Middle East Eye, only an hour after he finally arrived at the makeshift refugee camp in Ainkawa, a Christian city beside Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. “The Peshmerga said they lost and we had to leave. We didn’t know what to do, but once we heard Da’ash [Islamic State] screaming ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,’ we knew that was it. We ran.”

Lemeer arrived in Ainkawa tired and hungry.The church however, which had already been acting as a refugee camp for Christians fleeing Mosul and the surrounding areas, was too ill equipped to handle the mass of new arrivals. Many refugees had been at the camp for most of the day without food, while all floor space in the church had been taken up.

Jalal Mekhel, another resident from Qaraqosh was one of those new arrivals that had his request for shelter inside the church turned back. Mekhel now sleeps outside along with his son that fled with him to the newly cobbled-together, and severely overstretched, refugee camp.

“When I first came to the church there was some food, but there has been nothing provided for anyone for hours, just water. Just hot water from an outside tap,” Mekhel said. “I don’t have a bed or seat inside the church, there is no room, my shelter is outside under the trees, we don’t even have a tent.”

Water, food, and shelter remain scarce in Ainkawa. Scores of families have followed Mekhel’s lead and are sprawled out under bushes and trees that surround the church, in a desperate attempt to gain some respite from the scorching 50 degree celsius temperatures. Food is severely lacking in the complex, while the first water delivery on Thursday took until mid-afternoon to arrive, as the United Nations scrambled to respond to the humanitarian situation.

Lemeer and Mekhel’s stories are no longer unique. Since the Islamic State, a Muslim extremist offshoot of Al Qaeda, began to seize land across Iraq, their biggest success being the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, people all over the country have found themselves displaced. The Islamic State had attempted to take the city of Qaraqosh previously after their conquest of Mosul, but were repelled by Peshmerga fighters and a small armed Christian volunteer force from the city. The city then became a place of sanctuary for fleeing Christians from Mosul over the past month before the Islamic State started to make moves on the city once again.

Other Christian cities in Northern Iraq have also been targeted. Bartella and Tel Kayf have felt the brunt of the Islamic State militants over the past days, with refugees from both cities now present at Ainkawa.

Christians have not been the only minority targeted however. Earlier this week the Islamic State scored a victory over the retreating Kurdish Peshmerga in the town of Sinjar. The residents of the city hail mainly from the Yizidi-religious sect, an ancient religion that the Islamic State has designated as a form of devil worship. A reported 500 Yizidis were killed by the Islamic State during the takeover. Over 50,000 residents fled into the nearby Sinjar mountain range to take refuge, where they currently remain. Starvation and dehydration has been reported to have taken the lives of over 70 people already. The situation in the Sinjar mountains has been described by the United Nations as a humanitarian disaster.

Children and Elderly sleep on the floor of the church. There is little room to move inside and no beds for the hundreds of displaced people (Sheren Khalel)

Fortunately the vast majority of the people of Qaraqosh managed to get out in time, but only just.

“I didn’t bring anything with me, just the clothes I’m wearing,” Lemeer said. “Not even my passport. Most people who ran from Qaraqosh are like this though, most of the people who run from Da’ash [Islamic State] anywhere actually, the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurd towns. No one has time to think, we run when Da’ash comes.”

Like Lemeer, most of the new arrivals to the camp left with nothing, although the few who left on previous days did manage to scramble a few personal belongings together. Govan Atalla and her family, fled Qaraqosh a day earlier than most. They left with nothing but a few items of clothes and a little money. It took her family ten hours to reach the church in Ainkawa.

“At four in the morning we could hear shooting but we didn't know who was shooting. We couldn't tell if it was the Peshmerga or Da’ash [Islamic State],” Atalla said.

Atalla and her family spent their last night in Qaraqosh holed up inside their church while the fighting between the Islamic State and the Peshmerga erupted on the town’s borders. As the sun rose into the next day the fighting continued. Their last night was one full of panic and fear of whether they would survive the night.

By midday the following day, the Islamic State managed to fire inside the city walls. Two young boys and a woman were killed. At that point Atalla and her family rushed to find a way out. Atalla said they spent the whole day trying to find a car they could go with.

New arrivals to the shelter pull up with their car full of their belongings. Many people left with only the clothes they wore that day (MEE / Sheren Khalel)

“Some of the people stayed, they wanted to leave in the morning, but by the next morning after we left, that’s it, Da’ash has the city now.”

Thirty people were still left in Qaraqosh after the Islamic State take-over. Some were sleeping when Peshmerga forces announced they were pulling back and that residents should flee. The Islamic State quickly entered the city following the announcement. Other residents made a conscious choice to stay in their homes despite the advancing militants. When Middle East Eye spoke with Atalla, her and others from Qaraqosh got word that the last thirty were allowed to leave the city and most were currently fleeing, although some believed that two residents may have been left behind, an elderly man, and a blind and deaf woman - both unable to have been carried to safety by two young family members.

The city is now under complete Islamic State control. For Atalla, who put her trust in the Peshmerga forces - which have previously been praised for their protection of minorities during the Islamic State’s offensive in Iraq - it has been a dramatic turn of fortune. Her family believe they will never return to their homes and the ancient city, and Atalla feels betrayed by the Kurdish forces, who claimed they would not let Qaraqosh fall to the islamic militants.

“The Peshmerga told us that they wouldn't let Da’ash take our city. They told us that if they all had to die in Qaraqosh they would before they let Da’ash come to our city,” Atalla said with tears in her eyes.