A militiaman stands guard as a family returning to Iraq’s main Christian town Qaraqosh following its recapture from the Islamic State group makes a bonfire on May 5, 2017 of damaged furniture and rubbish that the jihadists left behind
Several plumes of smoke rise above Iraq’s main Christian town Qaraqosh, but this time it isn’t the Islamic State jihadist group burning crosses and churches.
Almost three years after fleeing the town, families are beginning to return and the first thing they do is burn old household items, a way of cleaning their homes and cleansing their bad memories.
“As you can see, we are burning our own clothes, our own furniture. We are burning our history,” said Milad Khodhr, 42, whose family is one of 17 who have returned to Qaraqosh.
“But we see no feeling of vengeance in these fires, we are peaceful… we are the real people of this country,” he said.
IS fighters swept through the Nineveh plain, east of Mosul, in August 2014 and forced around 120,000 of Iraq’s Christians to flee their homes, the biggest disaster to hit the minority in its nearly 2,000 year history.
Qaraqosh had a pre-IS population of around 50,000 and was emptied almost overnight.
Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake Mosul and surrounding areas in October last year and chased IS out of Qaraqosh a few days later.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Iraq’s biggest church, was burnt and the reconstruction work that lies ahead in Qaraqosh is huge.
The families who have returned in recent days take out all the damaged furniture and rubbish that the jihadists who occupied and looted their homes left behind.
A militiaman stands in a church in Iraq’s main Christian town Qaraqosh as returning families carried out cleanup on on May 5, 2017, following its recapture from the Islamic State group
With virtually no state services available and rubbish collection a distant prospect for the town, residents have no option but to burn their own refuse.
The religious authorities have stepped in to organise the return of Qaraqosh’s population, which many see as crucial to the long-term survival of the minority.
– Reconstruction –
“Some of the people of Qaraqosh have gone abroad, but more than half are still in Iraq. We have carried out a survey showing that 68 percent of them want to return,” Father George Jahula, who is helping returning families, told AFP in Qaraqosh.
“The rest are undecided,” he said.
In a symbolic gesture, the archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, was the first to move back to Qaraqosh in April, just before celebrating emotional Easter services in the town.
“The return depends on safety and how quickly the infrastructure is repaired,” Father Jahula said.
“In the absence of any help from the state for people to rebuild their homes, the church has stepped in,” said the clergyman, wearing a tracksuit to run around the town and organise his team of engineers.
The church and its volunteers have mapped the destruction in Qaraqosh using satellite images, allocated certain amounts for each sector and set completion targets.
“Since the available funding is limited, we have set up a list of those who want to return, and next week we will begin distributing money to start the reconstruction process,” said Zakariah Sabah, one of the organisers.
A militiaman charged with protecting families returning to Iraq’s main Christian town Qaraqosh following its recapture from the Islamic State group surveys the damage to his uncle’s house on May 5, 2017
Qaraqosh still looks like a ghost town and access from the nearby Kurdish capital of Arbil — where many Christians found shelter in 2014 — is complicated by a gauntlet of checkpoints.
But for some of its displaced residents, return is the only option, whether the town is ready or not.
“Why did I return? Where else would I go? I have lived here all my life, 87 years,” said Najma Boutros, an old lady with a hunched back and sunken eyes.
“My daughter and I live alone, we came back because we couldn’t pay the rent anymore,” she said as she cleaned a sofa in the front yard of her house, which escaped unscathed from the flames that destroyed many of the neighbouring homes.