With only 8.1 km separating Batnaya and Tel Skuf, they existed as sister cities in an area of Iraq called the Nineveh Plain – a place that Christians and other ethnoreligious minorities have lived for millennia.
When ISIS swept across Iraq in August 2014 on a mission of systematic annihilation against Christians and other religious minorities, chaos ensued. People were forced to flee their homes instantly, knowing full well that ISIS would soon destroy their churches, houses and places of work. Eventually, ISIS took Batnaya with the full intention to advance towards Tel Skuf, desecrating everything in its way.
In the resulting struggle between the Kurdish army, called Peshmerga, and ISIS to take possession of the land, Batnaya became a desolate moonscape and Tel Skuf an uninhabited ghost town, constantly under enemy fire, directly on the war’s front line. By October 2017, the Peshmerga, together with the Coalition Forces, drove out the last of the ISIS from Batnaya and eventually all of Nineveh.
In Tel Skuf, 300 families have started the process of patching their lives back together. In Batnaya, however, only one man has re-established his home and returned with his family. Even with ISIS gone, the current political uncertainty has caused some to hesitate on returning to Nineveh while others have chosen to leave the province altogether, seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, other nearby countries, or in the West. For all the displaced people of Nineveh, these towns mean more than the streets and buildings – Nineveh is the wounded but still beating heart of Iraq’s minority population.
The Nineveh Plains are symbolic, a cultural and religious landmark and to remain with the uncertainties of war still on the horizon is to claim ownership of one’s future there. -Story written by Taylor Nam
Erbil, located approximately 120 kilometers north of Baghdad, is the capital city of the Kurdistan Region and became the destination for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the neighboring province of Nineveh. This region is where the majority of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities, including a nearly 2,000-year-old Christian community, reside. Although ISIS never reached Erbil itself, war consumed its neighboring cities and threatened the lives of everyone in the area until its expulsion from Iraq in the fall of 2017.
In a process of systematic persecution of Christians and other ethnoreligious minorities like Yazidis, ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains with the intent of creating its territorial caliphate and to obliterate everything representing these cultures. Women and children were no exception. When ISIS took Batnaya, thousands fled to the Kurdistan region with only minutes notice, taking with them only what they could carry and leaving most of their possessions behind. Once clear of Batnaya, they had little place to go except for refugee camps. Although they may have escaped the ISIS invasion, the people of Nineveh were far from safe.
Batnaya’s neighbor, Telskuf, was held by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and became the front line against ISIS. The militants who captured Batnaya were stopped only a few kilometers away. Filled with homes, shops, restaurants, schools — like any normal town — Telskuf marked the last line of defense in Northern Iraq. Just on the horizon and after years of occupation, looting, shelling, desecration and eventually coalition bombing, Batnaya was reduced to near rubble as Telskuf remained relatively intact.
Although ISIS nearly captured Telskuf it continued to besiege it daily with mortars, artillery, sniper infiltrations and roadside bombs. Eventually, the extremists were pushed back by the Peshmerga forces with air support from the United States. As a defensive measure, The Peshmerga drew literal lines in the sand with WWI-like trenches dug deep into the Telskuf ¬that remain visual scars recent conflict.
For almost three years, ISIS ravaged Batnaya and continually attacked Telskuf. The rubble piles and dry, fragmented vegetation in both towns reflects the destruction. With debris littering the streets and entire buildings leveled almost beyond recognition, Nineveh was transformed from an ancient sanctuary to ruins.
In Batnaya, very few buildings withstood ISIS’s occupation. Those that did were disfigured by the ravages of war – graffiti, bullet holes, bomb craters, missing walls and piles of rubble. With all the residents gone and around 80-percent of the town damaged, the now ghost town took on a moonscape-like appearance. The Peshmerga (with air support from the U.S.) eventually pushed ISIS out of Batnaya but the retreating fighters scorched the earth as they fled by blowing up key infrastructure, llooting and leaving booby traps for the victors in an already devastated city. The Christians of Batnaya have been slow to return, because so little of their old lives remain and danger still exists.
By September 2017, only one family had returned to Batnaya. They live in what would be a normal home in any other town but here, perched amidst the wreckage; the structure’s mere existence is remarkable. Other residents, while at first expressing their resolution to return to their city, now face the reality that everything they once knew is nearly gone.
What used to be a place of worship, the Catholic Church in Batnaya, now stands as a testament to jihad. With the statuary destroyed and the building in near ruins, the altar was used as target practice by occupying ISIS militants. On the walls, hateful messages were made in Arabic but also in German ISIS soldier scribbled caliphate graffiti on the walls – a testament to ISIS’s global appeal. The local vicar has expressed that he will keep the bullet-riddled altar as a monument and a reminder to visitors and Parishioners alike that although outside forces like ISIS may try to wipe out Christianity, the community will endure.
Clothing, toys, and photos — memories of happier days — all had to be left behind when the people of Nineveh fled for their lives. In the choice between personal mementos and one’s life, the decision is instinctual and often instantaneous. For the Christians of Batnaya, the abandonment and loss of material things represents how quickly their lives can be taken from them.
Initially, the general attitude among the displaced Christians, Yazidis and other refugees was that they would return to their towns in Nineveh, including Batnaya and Telskuf, when ISIS was defeated. However, some have left Iraq and will never return seeking refuge in neighboring counties like Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. Many remain in refugee camps with no money or means to rebuild.
In Telskuf, the town is making a comeback with stores and shops reopening. Even restaurants are turning on their lights once more.
No matter if they choose to go back home to Telskuf and Batnaya or to move elsewhere, the attitude of those Christians and the other displaced peoples who lived through the ISIS invasion remains one of hope and pride. ISIS did not win. Jihad did not prevail. And, for the future, hope exists.