No home for the holidays: Assyrian Christians unable to return to villages destroyed by ISIS
As the campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS rages on, Christian residents of surrounding villages already freed from the terror army's grip have returned to find their homes booby-trapped, in ruins and uninhabitable.
Ethnic and religious minority groups like the Yazidi and Assyrian Christians were driven from their ancestral homelands across the Nineveh Plain when the Islamic State attempted to establish their caliphate.
Also known as the Plain of Mosul, the region has long been the ancestral homeland for the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christians, along with other religious minority groups, but for the last two years they have been subjected to persecution and genocide at the hand of ISIS militants.
The villages of Bashiqa, Bartella, Karamles, Qaraqosh and Tellisqof were recently liberated from ISIS by the Nineveh Protection Units (NPU) and Iraqi Special Forces, but many of these villages have been left in complete disarray by the terror group.
In some towns, most of the infrastructure has been reduced to rubble; in others, dangerous chemical compounds have been dumped, polluting the ground. But what all the places have in common is that they are unsafe and nearly impossible for those who fled to return any time soon.
“It’s a catastrophe,” one Assyrian from Bashiqa named Laith told FoxNews.com. Like many from his village, he was forced to flee two years ago for Kurdish-held territory. “We are hearing that the situation at Bashiqa is terrible ... [ISIS] has destroyed it all.
"We hope to return with everyone here. God willing, we will return soon."
Exclusive images provided to FoxNews.com by the Illinois-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC) show the destruction of homes and infrastructure of these villages at the hands of ISIS.
Thousands who left as refugees from their own land were forced to flee to places like Kurdish territory, Lebanon and Turkey, while others have been forced to be nomads wondering across Northern Iraq.
“Everything is damaged,” Jalal, an Assyrian from the village of Karamles, told FoxNews.com. “Houses have been burned by fire. There’s no water, no anything. People will only return if there is some sort of promise of protection.”
Officials with the NPU tell FoxNews.com that many of the homes in these villages were burnt to the ground when ISIS abandoned them, fleeing from coalition forces. Many have also been looted in the wake of their destruction.
Many Assyrians who fled say that what is immediately needed in their villages for them to return is greater security or some sort of assurance of protection from Baghdad.
“The damage to these villages is hard to overstate,” Robert Nicholson – executive director of the Philos Project, an advocacy and relief organization – told FoxNews.com. “In one last act of vengeance, ISIS made sure that returning Assyrian families would find their homes and business shot full of holes, rigged with mines and utterly demolished.”
Nicholson, like many others in the international community, say that rebuilding the region will take years and that funding is badly needed.
“The road is long, but the journey is made up of single steps. We need to start small, focusing on the most important villages and work outward,” he said. “We need the international community to step in. All those countries in Europe and around the world that talk about preserving minority peoples, indigenous peoples, need to step up and put their money where their mouth is.”
The ICRC is spearheading an initiative to help with rebuilding efforts in the Nineveh Plain. The group’s Operation Return to Nineveh was launched last month to raise funds to rebuild homes and churches in Assyrian communities that were destroyed by ISIS.
“Restoring these villages will be a long-term project, but it has to be done,” Juliana Taimoorazy, the organization’s executive director, told FoxNews.com. “It’s doable only if there’s active security on the ground.”
Taimoorazy’s group has also chosen to “adopt” one town – Tellisqof – and is in the process of raising money and resources to rebuild the village.
“A lot of these [Assyrian] people are farmers and their land was polluted with chemicals by ISIS,” she said. “They are unable to work on the land.
“We have to proceed with caution, but we have to come alongside the Assyrian people to help them rebuild. They have to return home.”