Feature

To the end of the world and back
Iraqi Christians liberated from Islamic State are optimistic, writes James Mahon, but there’s a long road to recovery

An Iraqi soldier carries an injured woman during a battle with the Islamic State group in Mosul.

What does the end of the world look like? Matthew, Luke, Timothy and the Book of Revelations all address this question in the Bible. Hollywood answers it with movies like World War Z, Deep Impact and I am Legend. Novelists portray this era in The Road, Z for Zachariah and Children of Men. For me the closest I have ever seen to the end of humanity is in Mosul, Iraq.

Roads covered in craters and potholes from airstrikes, bombs and tanks, standing lost and dazed on shattered footpaths, dust and dirt covered lost souls selling bits of old furniture, car parts and pieces of bent metal. Grills of trucks, vehicle exhausts and tyres stacked high into the sky as sandstorms wrap furiously around bullet ridden concrete buildings with not a shard of glass remaining in the windows.

The rumble of gunfire every few seconds is broken only by the gentle thud of explosion after explosion coming across the river Tigris from the stronghold of the so-called Islamic State terror organisation. Cars old and new rattle around these damaged roads, beggars shuffle amongst the remains of shops and stores and all around us the air is dry and sandy. You feel like you are choking, even when you know you can breathe.

Support

Our morning started at a refugee run by British and American charity the AMAR Foundation with support from the United Nations (UN). Its name: Qaqmawa. Our little pale blue four door Chevrolet ground across the hot gravel as we entered this large Roman-military-style camp.

Rows and rows of tents with the UN logo on the side made from the material I had only ever seen being used to carry bags of turf when living in the west of Ireland. Rough, coarse and strong domed white shapes sectioned off, their occupants sitting on concrete floors. In the middle sat four prefabs under what first appeared to be a petrol station forecourt structure.

An Iraqi flag fluttering from the top of the forecourt and lines and lines of families, young, old, headscarf-covered women, tired-looking men and boys peered at our car. The prefabs were labelled pharmacy, reception, optometrist and doctor. Our little car shuddered to a halt outside and a team of white coats appeared from all the prefabs.

“Welcome, busy day here, acute gastroenteritis, asthma, tonsillitis.” Dr Ayuoub standing at no more than five foot and looking like a clean-shaven teenager took control of our visit, but his energy levels were already down. He explained how his team deal with 150 patients a day from East Mosul.

“Qaqmawa has 1,100 tents in total” mutters Zana the camp director as we walked between the hot prefabs as the eyes of small children follow us, sullen and lost, looking yet still retaining some of that childhood curiosity.

“There are some patients they have dental problem, it is not my specialty but I cannot deal with them I am not a dentist,” adds Ayuoub as we step into his prefab, one desk, piles of medication and a few pens. He tells The Irish Catholic this is a struggle for him not just as a medical practitioner but as a man.

“There are many psychological problems here, because they are in a camp, it is not so nice for them, many of their problems come from the overcrowded area.”

You can see he is torn: he continually glances out the window during our conversation aware that he needs to help those in need. Cries of children in weathered clothes, some old football jerseys, concerned parents sitting on the concrete under the forecourt or on plastic chairs await him.

Flitting between the prefabs it’s obvious this is a well-oiled medical machine, servicing the needs of patients in the best way it can with such limited resources. The pharmacist, Walid Uousif, older and more weathered than Ayuoub with a chin strap beard, proudly opens his prefab door and boasts he has a decent stock of medicine to help.

“Doxycycline, iron, Panderum, tablets for suppository and aspirin”. Waiting for his advice and pills are the Mathur family of eight.

Their five children – all aged under 10 – share one of the small tents nearest the medical centre.

Their father lifts the tent flap and welcomes us in to their concrete-floored wind-blown tent home. Its hot, the ground burns your shoes, the children pop in and out from playing outside while we are told of their struggle to flee Mosul.

“Here there are no bombs, it’s not perfect, but we are safe.”

 

They want to return home. Dozens of families in the camp are hoping to get strong enough with more medical support to head back – to return to the lives I described earlier on. It is a choice between a rock and a hard place. Some of these families will go, the remaining tents and the ones they vacate are awaiting an influx of refugees from IS-controlled west Mosul in the coming weeks.

This is one of 10 camps – it’s one of the better ones. There is running water, security fences and guards and most importantly there is the medical centre.

Back to the road we join a dirt track running for 20 kilometres along the Kurdistan and Iraq border. Small grey stones fly up from the road hitting the bumper and wind screen as Peshmerga makeshift guard towers lie to our right every half mile or so. They glance up as we sped past and then carry on staring across the empty dry space to a city the world is watching.

This place is barren and bare, a few exposed buildings have been converted into military outposts after being recaptured from ISIS. The road snakes along beside these little guard towers and outputs, a cloud of dust roars towards us and from it emerges a large oil tanker, stained grey and black, its driver struggling to control the tractor trailer as 18-wheels skid on the loose road surface searching in vain for traction, finally it regains some control and careers away from us hurtling towards Erbil in Kurdistan.

In Erbil there are hotels, shopping malls, nightclubs, restaurants, tourists and a life nothing like Quqmawa or Mosul. They are just 80 kilometres apart but are two very different worlds. The dirt road ends by intersecting a highway, along which are tanks, cars and some sheep. We join this odd flow by turning right and within minutes hit a checkpoint.

It’s like a garage in the middle of nowhere, open at both ends flags flying from its roof, Iraqi army soldiers stopping cars and trucks from both directions. Tanks sitting ominously facing us, their guns trained on the flow of traffic struggling to get through the questions, the stern faces, the passport-checking and then we were finally through.

It was one of half a dozen, more and more, every time my chest tightened, my passport taken, pawed, flipped, scanned and handed between towering soldier after soldier, guns on hips and on shoulder glistening in the sun while eyebrows were raised and my driver and translator explained I am here to reflect and share the stories I hear, not change them.

Bartella, a small war-stricken town, appears on our right-hand side and I know I’m safe. We pull over off the road, the cars are now less frequent, the sun’s rays piercing the dry air.

A police officer walks slowly towards us, boots dragging in the sand, his hands outstretched carrying small plastic water bottles and in broken English asks for my passport. His brown hairy hands covered in scars, he touches the harp on it running his fingers down and across it and smiles. He grabs my hand and points to his neck.

Underneath his bulletproof vest, something glistens, he contorts his body and a small gold crucifix pushes between the buttons of his shirt. He points a finger to his chest and exclaims: “Christian, Christian, Christian.”

Nine miles from Mosul city centre, Bartella is free. It has been now for a few months but this man has not met many others from across the world to share the joy. Encouraging us out of the car he rushes to a little hut and behind it grabs colder water bottles for us to drink.

Bartella had suffered, ISIS drove thousands of its Christian occupants out, many died, others fled to Erbil. The town has six churches and one very proud Orthodox Christian policeman. His eyes smiled as he led us through his hometown. Pro- and anti-Islamist graffiti and bullet holes were everywhere on abandoned buildings.

Cars can’t drive here, the roads are trenches. We shuffled along as downed power lines and bits of tanks and heavy artillery guns lay strewn across the town’s streets. Pointing to a large yellow building he smiled even wider. He ushered us inside and a wall of noise met us. Students, refill pads, old classrooms and timetables everywhere. Male and female students huddled together in groups, looking at their phones, smiling and laughing. Students bringing us into their classrooms.

“We suffered for three years with Isis now the people need the general society to support them” says Sami, who is studying IT management. He explains we are at the Masawat school, an old building being used as one of six satellite campuses for the bombed University of Mosul.

Other students who explain this is not their campus but a temporary one are just happy to be back in education

“While we stayed in Mosul we lost two years of education and now new we are going to start again,” one said.

Others are not so impressed by the facilities which have limited running water and electricity, no wireless internet and simple used or broken children’s school desks to work.

“Small space, as you see, it’s loud, do you see this, class very small,” a student tells me.

Ahmed is studying business management and wants the world to know his classmates are not giving up despite the conditions and limitations. “Ask them for their support, so we can recover from this war and get rid of Isis,” he says.

We leave the school, waving at our police officer as we get back in the car and head straight for Mosul’s heart. Sand blows from right to left obscuring our view as faded hooded figures trudge along the sides of the road. It’s flat, there are no tall buildings just bruised-looking apartment buildings, more abandoned cars and those street sellers with little to offer. We stop and talk to one who explains he makes less than six dollars a day selling old tools and bits of furniture.

But he is optimistic: “The electricity is back mostly, the authorities they have given us some running water, things are changing.”

We enter a market square where exposed pipes are leaking into the middle of the intersection. Pools of water and skidding cars, motorbikes and fruit stalls greet us and in the corner – a small café.

Basma Abdul Karin – slicing and dicing cucumber and tomatoes – strides forward, his little moustache maintained impeccably, a man confident in middle-age. He owns cafés in both east and west Mosul.

“The west is better for me, there I can get a $1,000 here I can only get a quarter of that money.”

Karin claims the quality of his falafels make them sell regardless of which side of the warring city his customers come from.

“I have experience in this work, a driver is coming to me, they want traditional food, even city government official come to buy from me,” he says.

Struggling

While Karin’s cafés are doing well, other Mosul businesses are struggling – yet he claims reputation helps. “I am famous even in Erbil, Dohuk, all Iraq I am famous for this type of food”.

Another helicopter whirrs overhead making its way back across the fading light of the city sky to one of those congested heavily-armed checkpoints we came through.

We stop across the road from Mosul University whose buildings have been bombed, burned and hit with air strikes: skeleton structures heavily-guarded. Cables and girders bent and broken hanging exposed. Lecturers fled, library books burned as the so-called Islamic State frowned on education. Here the sounds of the bombs and gunfire can be heard clearly; we are within 700 metres of the Al-Nuri mosque where the Islamic radicals are making their last stand.

As darkness creeps across the sky Iraqi army soldiers gesticulate calmly that we need to move along and get out. Accelerating out of the city fleeing the covering of night we meet traffic at every corner. The checkpoints emerge again and this time it’s a waiting game. Every truck is checked: cabin, inside compartments in the trailer area, trailers, all for ISIS terrorists who may be intent on getting out to nearby peaceful Kurdistan or beyond. Lines of Iraqi soldiers walk amongst vehicles peering inside curious and concerned.

We clear another checkpoint, this time after a 40-minute wait. Our driver Sardar pulls the car off the main road and we arrive at a small church. It too has a little checkpoint, guarded by soldiers of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), these are armed Assyrian Christians who liberated towns surrounding east Mosul from the so-called Islamic State just before Christmas, including Bartella. They invite us out of the car and welcome us into the stunning stone building, its cross standing prominently over the arched gateway.

Before we enter the church we are brought to a large rusted metal sheet, the soldiers drag it back and a huge tunnel opens up – an ISIS tunnel, it weaves its way underground surfacing inside the beautiful old church where the terrorists have dug another hole the size of a centre circle on a football field. The stained glass windows have been broken but soldiers busy themselves sweeping the tiles and making this place of worship respectable, and their home.

There are half a dozen NPU soldiers here. They total between 500 and 1,000 with some sources claiming they may have up to 5,000 reserve troops in the region and are trained by the US armed forces to overthrow ISIS from their Christian hometowns surrounding Mosul.

They proudly tell us of ringing church bells, celebrating Christmas and Easter and looking to the future as they drink small cups of tea and offer some sweet cake inside the church compound. The sun is now setting fast as we walk away from the smiling happy faces. As we pass under their checkpoint a crucifix stands sentinel over the little village its shadow falling on the deserted road and the silence.

As darkness consumes the roadway, Sardar gets a call from another journalist staying in my hotel. He’s British and sounds distressed. He is stuttering and agitated, talking about how near Mosul University his friend was shot in the abdomen by ISIS fighters and is bleeding out. He is asking Sardar to turn around and come back to collect him as the friend has been flown by helicopter to Baghdad but will probably die. He asks me can we turn back and I respond with, “I don’t mind”.

At that same second the English journalist gets another call, puts us on hold and when he returns explains he has a transport out of the city.

I take the phone and talk to him about his childhood, about Warwick, Sheffield, middle England and about football, distracting him and trying to make him laugh, he bids farewell and offers a ‘thank you’ and our little car rolls onto Erbil on a deserted road with just the pale moon and lines of white refugee tents for company.

James Mahon is an international multimedia Journalist, university lecturer and author from south Galway covering human interest stories and conflict situations in the US, Europe and Middle East.