The Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Erbil,in the last years has experienced an economic boom and a urban expansion, especially in the outlying districts where skyscrappers have risen, luxury facilities entertain business men, commercial malls manifest a deceptive concept of development and Kurdish leaders already envision a powerful oil state. Blindly reproducing the western model Erbil is opening its doors to foreign investors – especially from Turkey – and it’s quickly becoming an important financial hub in Middle East.
On the road to the Christian neighborhood: Ainkawa, glaring billboards show the construction of promising ideal lives in fancy residences, while in the skeletons of unfinished buildings voices suggest the presence of refugees and IDPs (Internal Displaced People) .
Since June, Erbil Governorate hosts thousands of Iraqi IDPs forced to flee their hometowns finding refuge in the autonomous norther region that has become a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Families now must face a life of hardship in camps, in tents, or in informal settlements where access to services and aid is not always ensured.
On the outskirts of Ankawa a shopping mall escaped to its profit destiny becoming instead a shelter for 400 families of IDPs, mostly Christians belonging to the Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox and Catholic Church of Iraq’s northwestern Nineveh Plain.
Voices from Ankawa Mall
Barbers and vendors animate the ground floor of the mall. Young men look themselves in the mirror, brushing their hair and fixing their eyebrows, while others, in a queue, wait to get shaved. Long tangled rows of wet clothes cross the isles searching for rays of an absent sun, whereas closure and humidity reigns. The cross made out of rope suspended at the entrance suggests that families belong mainly to christian villages such as Qaraqosh, Bartella and Kharamles. All escaped to the threat of Daish, ISIS.
In June ISIS’ fighters swept into Mosul finding no resistance at all. During confrontations against 3 thousand ISIS fighters, around 60 thousand Iraqi armed forces abandoned their posts, shed their uniforms and fled leaving behind sophisticated weapons given by the US now in the hands of the terroristic organization.
Roughly 500.000 of residents also fled; amongst them David’s family and Dushi, the white cheeked bulbul. “We left everything behind, even our documents, but we had no second thoughts on Dushi, he’s part of the family and now cheers us up with his lullabies.” Moved to Qaraqosh, shortly after, they had to escape once again finding refuge in Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan. Also Amar had to flee: “When ISIS reached Mosul they gave us three choices: convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or death. In fact, it was no choice at all. Of course I was afraid, especially for my family, but I couldn’t hold myself back from telling an ISIS fighter – who came up to me – that he was the disbeliever, not me.”
As someone starts telling his story, more and more people gather, and the end of a story bridges to the beginning of another.
In Qaraqosh ISIS’ strategy didn’t alter, with the withdrawal of the peshmerga, they managed in a few hours to take control of the city. Around 20.000 inhabitants had already escaped but many others were caught by surprise or just were unable to move: especially poor and elder people. They sieged within their four walls until a further ultimatum was given: gather nearby the mosque to be evacuated by bus. Distrust and fear suggested it could’ve been a trap, but food and water shortage didn’t give any other alternatives to the few who stayed. They were in fact expelled form their own city, and many witnessed to the abduction of young girls and women never to be seen again.
ISIS’ advance in the region has been facilitated by the fragility of Al-Maliki’s government that for decades sacrificed political reforms encouraging instead polarization between sectarian identities resulting in genocide of minorities, persecutions, civil conflicts and inequities towards the Sunnis.
*On the wave of the Arab springs in 2011, the non violent movement rooted in the Iraqi civil society uprised asking for an alternative system based on social justice, reforms and abrogation of many laws linked to the country’s de-ba’athification process. The government’s reaction was of further repression and the escalation of violence which followed allowed IS to gain consensus.
Most of the Christians now seek a way to leave the country. David’s mother, who’s wrinkles dig into history, 80 years old, explains why: “We never had a moment of peace in this country, the history repeats itself and I have no more hope. I don’t want my grandchildren to endure a life of persecution.” Hanna, from Qaraqosh, and mother of two kids continues: “This country is ill, I don’t see a future for my children. We already escaped from Baghdad in 2007, and now we found ourselves refugees once again.”
From what was once a group of 1 million Christians, a few hundred thousand remain and further exoduses are foreseen. At present time, a worryingly feeling of hostility towards Muslims seems to transversally cross the community; in a long term view such animosity could fuel future cycles of ethnic-religious violence; a reality already seen in the Balkan conflicts.
“Why doesn’t the Pope come here, why the Christians don’t host us in Europe.” is what – as an Italian – I’m often asked. Fortress Europe’s last years policies have contributed to keep immigrants outside its walls facilitating smugglers, instead of creating humanitarian corridors. And just recently it has preferred to establish a sea border patrol instead of supporting a life saving program: Mare Nostrum. Fortress Europe’s walls are rising and its foundation are more stable than ever, based on the ignorance of racism and political interests feeding illegal systems of human trafficking.
For many Europe remained just a mirage.
The deep voice of the priest resounds through the skeleton of the unfinished building recalling the believers to the mass. It’s Sunday evening and Ankawa mall is plunged into darkness. Electricity has been missing for more than one week, and as the shadows slim down towards west, candles like fireflies weakly light up the corridors.
No electricity means that heaters remain turned off. In the rooms, hosting roughly 5 individuals per family, people must face the frost that enters arrogantly through the common spaces still under construction. Humidity creeps in the bones, it sucks into the clothes and announces a winter of distress and loss. No electricity, also means that water isn’t pumped, leaving whole floors with no provision and causing an immediate impact on the toilets’ conditions. The residents are well aware that such unhealthy conditions will cause a backlash in terms of diseases, and the first to be affected are already elders and children. Frustration is finding wrong channels of expression, it accumulates day by day and erupts in fights and domestic violence.
In addiction, rumors seem to foresee another displacement. Just a few kilometers away, the Church has started setting around a thousand caravans which probably are designed to the Christians of Ankawa mall. Another displacement, amongst many others; another await, amongst many others.
Men, women, children gather around the altar, one by one, they leave a kiss, a caress to the small crucifix enlightened by the candles. What will be of their future is still uncertain, but Christmas is arriving and right now the residents are getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth – despite all.
*source: La crisi irachena. Cause ed effetti di una storia che non insegna – Edizioni dell’Asino 2014
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Currently I’m working for UPP – Un ponte per…
an Italian organization active in Iraq since 1991. During the embargo elements of the Italian civil society decided to challenge the embargo by buying Iraqi products to be resold in Italy. Since then, the organization has developed becoming very well known in Iraq for its involvement and support to the Iraqi society.