Despite many fleeing to Erbil, there is fear Islamic State, formerly ISIS, will advance and even the Kurdish capital is not safe. The last day of Qaraqosh’s time as a Christian town, a time almost as old as Christianity itself, began with a mortar shell at nine in the morning.It came through the roof of Melad and Marven Abdullah’s house on Wednesday, killing them instantly. Melad was nine; his cousin, Marven, four. The mortar struck Marven in the head as it landed. They found his arms and feet, crushed against the wall, but nothing else.
The family’s next-door neighbour, Enam Eshoo, had popped in to deliver some fresh drinking water; she too died where she fell. The day ended with an order to evacuate. Within a couple of hours, the city’s tens of thousands of inhabitants were crowding the road to Kurdistan, fighting with troops manning checkpoints, trying to find shelter where they could. The streets of the capital Erbil’s newly Christian suburb, Ainkawa, swelled by exiles from ten years of punishing terror and oppression in northern Iraq, are now full of stunned and helpless people. They are camping on the floors of church halls, in a building site, in the street. An old woman was sleeping in a flower bed. Another begged for help.
“Please take me home,” the woman, Azat Mansur, said. It was not clear what she meant by “home”; it sounded more spiritual than real, since her home is now under the control of the jihadists of the Islamic State. “I can’t stay here any more, or anywhere else. They are going to kill us. They will cut our heads off, if we stay here.”
There is great fear that the advance of the jihadists of the Islamic State is not over, that even Erbil is not safe, two days after the jihadists advanced to within 30 miles.
Mrs Mansur knows them directly, having fled their June advance into Mosul, from where she and all the other Christians were expelled. The jihadists stole $2,000 and her mobile phone at a checkpoint before they let her go, she added.
The refugees plead for help from the West, but when it is offered, they react with an angry despair.
“The Pope says he wants Peace,” said Mazen Elias Abdullah, the father of nine-year-old Melad. “Well, if he lives in Peace, perhaps he could take us there. We don’t want to live here any more. We would like to live in Peace too.”
Qaraqosh is, or was, the largest of a triangle of Christian towns north and east of Mosul, in fact the largest Christian town in Iraq. It has been Christian since the earliest years of the faith. Islamic State, the ultra-jihadist al-Qaeda off-shoot that now controls large parts of the country, first tried to attack in late June, after its sweep through Sunni areas of the north and west.
In that case, they were beaten back, or at least did not press their assault. It seemed for a while as if their forces were stretched thinly, bolstered by their allies in the primarily Sunni tribes of western Iraq but not able to reach into areas where those tribes had no interest, such as Kurdish or Christian regions. The promised attack on Baghdad never materialised, either. But that assessment was wrong. In the last three weeks, IS has made substantial gains in both Syria and against the Kurds, seizing 17 towns in the last week alone, according to their own account, and Mosul Dam, the country’s largest.
Last weekend, they sent the entire population of another beleaguered minority, the Yazidis, into flight north-west of Mosul. Thousands are still camped out on a mountainside, surrounded, starving and awaiting some form of deliverance.