October 26, 2016
QARAQOSH // Iraqi army Humvees roar through the arid plains of Nineveh province, kicking up immense clouds of dust as they follow the dirt track that winds its way to the front. Among the rugged war machines is a white SUV, which seems in a particular hurry to reach its destination.
In the car sit two priests, dressed all in black and wearing clerical collars, and a few men clad in army fatigues, clutching old Kalashnikovs. They are on their way to Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, where the Iraqi army is fighting to expel the last ISIL fighters.
Qaraqosh fell to ISIL in August 2014, shortly after the insurgents shocked the world by taking control of nearby Mosul. With the operation to liberate Mosul and end ISIL’s reign in Iraq well under way, the areas surrounding the northern city are slowly being reclaimed by the army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Amongst them is Qaraqosh, whose 50,000 inhabitants fled to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region when the extremists seized the town.
Qaraqosh has not been fully secured yet. The insurgents are still holding on to some of the outskirts. Sniper fire and mortar rounds continue to harass the Iraqi soldiers and even the threat of suicide car bombers has not been banished.
But this has not deterred Father Amar and Father Majid, who both hail from Qaraqosh, from returning to their hometown. After navigating the gently rolling plains, the convoy reaches the town’s fringes, where it passes tanks and Humvees of the 9th Armoured Division, and pulls up next to an abandoned hospital.
ISIL has ransacked the building, taking all of its surgical equipment and even stripping the computers of their memory chips. Part of the complex has been destroyed by a fire and a discarded police uniform lies at the entrance of the guard room, suggesting a tale of panicked escape as the militants closed in.
The priests are visibly shocked by the destruction around them.
“This hospital served the people from more than fifty villages. Hundreds of people came here every day. Now you can see what happened,” says Father Amar, clearly struggling to keep his composure.
The convoy continues, rolling past facades scarred by bullet holes and punctured by tank shells. On the broad road leading into town, an engine block and mangled car frame lie not far from the shattered hull of a Humvee. According to Iraqi high command, ISIL has already launched well over a hundred car bombs at the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in its desperate defence of Mosul. Some of them detonated in Qaraqosh where 18 soldiers have been killed in the fighting and around 80 wounded, according to Major Mohammed, who heads the field hospital behind the front line.
A large structure moves into focus on the left: the Church of the Immaculate Conception is the biggest in Qaraqosh, drawing in 3,000 people for Sunday mass before ISIL came to town, according to Father Amar.
The extremists seem to have taken pleasure in desecrating the holy site: wooden rows of seats have been tossed over, the mezzanine floor housing the organ has been torched, and the altar and interior walls are charred. ISIL graffiti is scrawled on the columns supporting the cental part of the building known as the nave.
“It is a big shock to see it this destroyed. I cried,” Father Amar says after taking in some of the damage.
In the courtyard of the administrative complex behind the church stand mannequins set up by ISIL for target practice. Thee walls on all four sides have been sprayed with bullets, and spent cartridges litter the floor. The insurgents used the church to store weapons and ammunition, says Major Fuad Jassem of the 9th Division.