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.