Pope Francis, joining the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom, has recognized the crimes of ISIS against Christians and other minorities as genocide. That designation should make Iraq’s suffering minorities eligible for substantial international support and protection as they are reclaiming land and properties held by ISIS for almost three years. In this report, Aid to Church in Need speaks with some of the first Christians to return to Bartella, a Christian community on the Nineveh Plains.
On Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, a Christian village is coming back to life
By Daniele Piccini
BARTELLA, a Christian village on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, was the first of the region’s communities to be liberated from the grip of ISIS, freed in fall 2016.
It was home to 3,400 Christian families before ISIS captured the community. Recently, after three years of exile in Kurdistan, the first six Syriac-Orthodox families have returned to their newly restored homes.
ISIS wreaked havoc in Bartella. More than 90 homes were completely destroyed, some 360 were badly damaged by fire and another more than 1300 homes suffered varying degrees of damage. To-date, Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity—working with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC)—has restored 17 homes in the village. Once funding is secured, another 150 homes are due to be worked on.
The village infrastructure needs repair too. However, “the water network is slowly being brought into service again,” Noor Sabah Dana, NRC engineer, told ACN. He added: “there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs, and sometimes the network breaks down completely. There is a municipal water tank, which serves other villages as well and. Electricity is also coming back slowly, though there are regular power failures, especially interruptions caused by the repair work.”
The municipal administration is repairing the streets and a group of garbage collectors is cleaning up trash and debris.
These are small miracles for a village still deeply scarred by the jihadist occupation. Still, many of the community’s former residents, having spent three years as IDPs in Kurdistan, are eager to return home. “At least 200 families come to Bartella from Erbil every day to clean their houses and try make them habitable again,” Noor Sabah Dana reported. “The families come here to clean their flats and clear them out; then they call the Committee to appraise their homes and provide an estimate for the damages. Then the restoration process can begin,” the engineer explained.
“After everything that happened, we returned to this house and asked the Church in Bartella for help,” explained Mark Matti Ishaq Zora, the son of a local farmer who is the owner of the house. He said: “A team of experts came and appraised all that was necessary: the paintwork, the electrical installations, the doors and windows, the water pipes.
“This is our city, our life, our history. Besides, in Kurdistan we struggling with difficult economic conditions. Food and rent are expensive. That is why I would like to tell all the families from Bartella to come back here. There is water and electricity and the Church is helping us. It is really wonderful to be able to live here again.”
Down the block, Nohe Ishaq Sliman, another home owner, chimes in: “We are all returning to Bartella because this is our city. I have lived here since I was a child.
“I drank the waters of the Tigris River and work here as a farmer. I built this house myself. How can I leave? I thank our benefactors for the help in restoring my house. I could no longer pay 600 or 700 dollars a month for rent and leave this house standing empty. How could I not return? This is my city, I want to return and live here.”
The challenges facing Christians on the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people); nearly 13,000 homes have to be repaired or rebuilt; there are security concerns in the villages; there is Kurdish-Iraqi political manoeuvring on the ground; there are massive infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics); and, most urgently, the IDPs in Erbil will continue to need food aid as well as help paying the rent, pending their hoped-for eventual return to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.
At this time, 342 properties are being renovated, in part through funding by ACN. Since the crisis began, ACN has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, close to $35M has been donated for emergency aid, including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)