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Can Christians rebuild their own homeland in Iraqi Kurdistan?

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In ruined Qaraqosh, once home to Iraq's largest Christian community, returning businessmen are beginning to rebuild, hoping to restore a sense of safety and lure back residents to the Christian heartland.

Iraqi Christian Louis Yousif points out the damage done to his three-story commercial building in Qaraqosh. US-backed forces evicted the Islamic State group from the town in October 2016 during the broader offensive to retake Mosul.
Dominique Soguel
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Caption
  • Dominique Soguel
    Correspondent

Armed with a tiny bit of capital and lots of courage, businessmen are slowly returning to the decimated town of Qaraqosh, home to Iraq’s largest Christian community before it was taken over by the Islamic State group in 2014.

The risk of doing business in Qaraqosh, also known as Al-Hamdaniya or Bakhdida, remains high even now that the jihadists have been driven out of the area.

But the prospect of Christians returning to Qaraqosh is better than for other mixed areas or disputed territories, says Lawrence Janan, an off-duty police officer, because this is the largest Christian city in Iraq, located in the historic heartland of the Assyrian community.

“It’s hard for Christians to go back to Mosul City, but here, at least, we were always a clear majority,” he says, standing across from a bombed church. “We have to come to our areas. This is our land. If we don’t watch over it, who will?”

That’s the same logic that motivates a cluster of businessmen who banded together to rebuild commercial areas one cinder block at the time. The magnitude of the task ahead would make an average man fold in despair.

Businessman Louis Yousif surveys the remains of his three-story corner complex with an acute sense of loss, but also a knack for nailing down opportunities.

Restoring venues for marketing material, passport photos, and decorations for special occasions such as weddings? Not a priority.

A bakery? A no-brainer. That was the first order of business. The oven stands ready to roll behind new window-paned walls. A barber shop and fish grill are next. He knows people won’t come back unless a normal daily life is viable.

“We need help to create the conditions for people to come back,” he says, surging up the broken slabs of concrete stairs to the rooftop of his complex, where you can see the church and the full extent of the damage done to his building by eight different projectiles.

He says the original construction of the complex, which was inaugurated in 2012, had cost $3 million, and he estimates repairs will be to the tune of $1 million.

“The international community must stand with Iraqi Christians,” Mr. Yousif says, increasingly agitated. “We don’t want money for our pockets. We need help to rebuild.”

Rebuilding safety

Liquor store owner Khudr Baham Anab restored his business in a flash, replacing layers of soot with bright speckled tiles, and shattered shelves with a sturdy, well-stocked display.

“This is the most dangerous business as we are always targeted,” says Mr. Anab. “If people see that I am here, that I came back and opened a liquor store, regular citizens will be reassured. They will think it is safe, although in reality it is not safe.”

Government-endorsed Shiite Arab forces guard the checkpoints leading into the Christian haven. They have replaced the white-scripted ebony banner of the Sunni militants with the red-scripted black standard saluting the imam revered by Shiite Muslims, Hussein.

Kurdish forces man the adjacent checkpoint on the road leading from Mosul to Erbil. And Christian militias police the streets of Qaraqosh marking out their turf with graffiti.

Qaraqosh is clearly at the center of the broader Baghdad-versus-Kurdish dispute for territory and the corresponding race to alter the demographic make-up of the Nineveh Plains.

Those tensions have reached a combustible high in the wake of a referendum for independence held last month by Iraqi Kurds despite sharp opposition from the central government, regional neighbors, and the broader international community.

A region of their own

Iraqi Christians would like a region of their own in their historic heartland.

“We are stuck between the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] and the central government in Baghdad unable to make our own decisions,” says Yousif, a lawyer by training. “They call us a disputed area, but in reality there are no Kurdish families here. That’s why we were abandoned in the hands of ISIS without a single shot being fired.”

Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities fault the Kurdish Peshmerga forces for retreating to their ethnic strongholds and abandoning the mixed villages of the Nineveh Plains as ISIS made its genocidal advance in 2014. That criticism is tempered by the acknowledgement that they found relative safety in Kurdish cities like Erbil over the two years that ISIS laid waste to their town and its Christian monuments. The majority of those who could leave the country altogether did so.

US-backed Iraqi forces and their proxies retook Qaraqosh in 2016, but it wasn’t until they liberated Mosul City, 20 miles west-northwest, that residents began to return in larger numbers. Even so, many men opt to keep their families in Ainkawa, a pre-dominantly Assyrian Christian suburb of Erbil. That decision reflects ongoing security concerns in their contested hometown and the scale of the damage done by jihadists on a looting and burning spree.

By most counts, fewer than half of the residents of Qaraqosh, which had a pre-war population of 50,000, have ventured back, but the numbers are growing every day.

“We are Iraqi citizens, but the state has not granted us protection,” says Falah Baqus, a resident of Qaraqosh who decided to move back a few weeks ago but almost regrets the decision, given the general lack of services and uncleared debris on both major and minor roads. “It breaks my heart to see my town littered like this, but if I do not come back, things will never be restored.”

Caught in the middle

Downstairs from Yousif’s rooftop perch, a handful of workers, including a Muslim laborer, take a break to share lunch and talk shop in the shadows of the gutted building.

Assyrian Christian Amir Toma is gearing up to open a fruit stand, a modest venture reflecting his limited means after two years of displacement. The interior is ready, but the shop is still missing a front wall. “If I had more capital, I would take on a bigger venture,” he says, standing under a pristine red sign advertising his business.

Mr. Toma used to be the manager of a marketing materials print shop. He started selling fruits and vegetables in Erbil’s Ainkawa to support his family. Although he has decided to bring his new trade back to his old neighborhood to contribute to the town’s revival, the rest of the family has stayed back because their home in Qaraqosh is charcoal and local rent prices run high, reflecting the dearth of supply.

Houses that are in good condition tend to be remote and in isolated areas. When might makes right, he says, that’s a risk he is not willing to take.

“Security here is a mixed salad,” he says with a sigh. “Some forces support the KRG. Others Baghdad. Us poor people are in the middle.”

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