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Iraqi Christian militia patrols village retaken from Islamic State group, vows to hold ground

  • A Dwekh Nawsha militia member stands next to a flag of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, as he stands guard on the rooftop of a building in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The party flag has replaced the black flag of the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group and is waving on the roof of the building at the entrance to the village. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

    A Dwekh Nawsha militia member stands next to a flag of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, as he stands guard on the rooftop of a building in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The party flag has replaced the black flag of the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group and is waving on the roof of the building at the entrance to the village. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)  (The Associated Press)

  • A Dwekh Naswha militia member prepares his weapon in front of a grave inside a 200-year-old monastery in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The recently-formed Christian militia group has taken control of the northern Iraqi town of Bakufa, which, just until over a month ago, was in the hands of extremists from the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

    A Dwekh Naswha militia member prepares his weapon in front of a grave inside a 200-year-old monastery in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The recently-formed Christian militia group has taken control of the northern Iraqi town of Bakufa, which, just until over a month ago, was in the hands of extremists from the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)  (The Associated Press)

  • Dwekh Nawsha militia members stand guard in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The recently-formed Christian militia group has taken control of the northern Iraqi town of Bakufa, which, just until over a month ago, was in the hands of extremists from the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

    Dwekh Nawsha militia members stand guard in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. The recently-formed Christian militia group has taken control of the northern Iraqi town of Bakufa, which, just until over a month ago, was in the hands of extremists from the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)  (The Associated Press)

An Iraqi Christian militia's flag is hoisted high over the village of Bakufa in northern Iraq, less than a month after Islamic State militants were pushed out and the extremists' black banner taken down.

The predominantly Christian hamlet of 95 houses that had about 500 people, located some 390 kilometers (243 miles) north of Baghdad, was overrun by the Islamic State group during its shocking blitz this summer, along with 22 other villages nearby.

In a counter-offensive, the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters swept in from the north, battling the Islamic State fighters house-to-house. The fighting forced the villagers to flee to Kurdish towns and cities elsewhere in northern Iraq.

Once Bakufa was retaken, the Kurdish fighters helped set up the village militia, made up of about 70 volunteers and known as Dwekh Nawsha, or "self-sacrifice" in Assyrian.

The men of Dwekh Nawsha now patrol and guard Bakufa round-the-clock, in the hope that the village stays free long enough so their families can return.

"We found ourselves helpless," said Caesar Jacob, a deputy of to the Christian militia's commander. The 44-year-old electrician said the militiamen worked "side-by-side" with the peshmerga fighters but then gradually took over responsibility for their village.

"We must depend on ourselves to defend our land for now and the future," Jacob told The Associated Press.

The militia commander, Albert Kisso, 47, said Christian territories in Nineveh province needed their own protection and the forming of the militia was the logical outcome.

The Assyrians, an indigenous Christian group in Iraq descendant from the ancient Mesopotamians, are a Semitic people who speak an eastern Aramaic dialect. Along with the Chaldeans, they make up the largest Christian group in Iraq.

Bakufa is also the site of the 200-year old St. Gorgiz Monastery, which Kisso describes as a tribute to the "elegance of the Mesopotamian civilization" of their ancestors.

"It is the priority of Dwekh Nawsha to protect the sons of this region, as well as the region itself — including its monasteries, churches, artifacts," said Kisso, a longtime member of the Assyrian Patriotic Party.

In their onslaught, the Islamic State group also targeted indigenous religious minorities across the country's north, including Christians and followers of the ancient Yazidi faith, forcing tens of thousands from their homes. The area's 120,000 Christians are mostly still in exile.

The Kurdish peshmerga fighters are proud of what they did for Bakufa.

"We came here ... to protect our Christian brothers and their homes," said Abdul Rahman Kawriny, the local peshmerga brigade commander. "There is constant cooperation and assistance. We are always together."

The Dwekh Nawsha militiamen spend the days patrolling the narrow village streets in bullet-proof vests, their insignia prominently displayed on their fatigues.

Relying on donations from Christian charities abroad and wealthier members of the Iraqi Assyrian community, the Christian fighters must supply their own weapons.

Those who do not own a weapon cannot join and many said that Dwekh Nawsha would have 250 men if only they had the needed firepower.

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Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.