Sabria Karami is used to leaving home in a hurry. When she stuffed her passport and a few items of clothing into a black plastic bag and rushed into the streets of the Christian town of Qaraqosh as mortar rounds landed there Wednesday night, it marked the fourth time she had fled her home since Iraq was plunged into chaos and war 11 years ago.
Ms. Karami was among thousands of Iraqi Christians who escaped Qaraqosh Wednesday night and Thursday morning after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked the town and exchanged mortar and light-weapons fire with defending Kurdish peshmerga fighters. (Though the town is outside Kurdistan proper, peshmerga moved in to protect the area earlier this month after ISIL captured the nearby city of Mosul.)
The Kurdish forces, fighting alongside local Christian militiamen, appear to have kept the attackers from entering the city, but the fighting provoked many of Qaraqosh’s residents to flee. The bulk headed due east to Ainkawa, a Christian town on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
It’s just the latest round in a mass exodus that has seen Iraq’s Christian community, one of the world’s oldest, depleted from 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 to less than a third of that today. Many of those who remain live in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, the only part of Iraq where secularism still reigns.
The emptying of Qaraqosh is particularly significant since the town of 50,000 was seen as one of the last safe havens for Iraqi Christians outside of the Kurdish region.
“This is the last wave,” said Father Rayan Atto, a local priest who on Thursday was running an impromptu refugee-processing centre on the outskirts of Ainkawa. “Qaraqosh was the second city for Christians [in Iraq], after Ainkawa, and now they are here. Think about it.”
A staff member from the International Organization for Migration said that between 2,000 and 3,000 people had arrived at the converted youth centre run by Father Rayan, while an unknown number of others had moved in with local families or were sleeping in cars bulging with belongings in Ainkawa.
Teacher sells fruit to survive
Many of those who arrived in Ainkawa said they don’t expect to return to Qaraqosh. “I’m not going to go back ever. I’m afraid of ISIL,” said Ms. Karami, a 45-year-old teacher by training who has been selling fruit to get by.
“It’s easy to attack us [Christians]. We are vulnerable. We have no army to defend us,” added the unmarried Ms. Karami, who was travelling alone and hopes that from Ainkawa she can be reunited with her brother in Australia.
Each of her escapes has taken Ms. Karami further north. Born in the southern city of Basra, she fled Baghdad in 2003 after someone – she believes it was Shia extremists – stuffed a letter through her door warning her to leave the city or be killed. After four uneasy years in Baghdad, she moved north to Mosul, which had a large community of Assyrian Christians.
But in 2008, after a wave of murders and threats targeting Mosul’s Christians, Ms. Karami joined an exodus that saw 12,000 Christians leave the city for nearby Qaraqosh. Earlier this month, Mosul fell under the control of ISIL, an extremist Sunni Muslim movement that has been backed in its advance by remnants of the former Baath Party regime and local Sunni tribes.
Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper reported this week that Mosul’s remaining Christians had been told by ISIL that they needed to pay a $250 head tax or immediately leave the city. There are fears for the safety of Mosul’s churches, as well as the ancient Mar Behnam monastery, one of the holiest sites for Assyrians.
The recent violence has erased the idea that Iraq’s Christians were safe in Qaraqosh or anywhere else in Iraq besides Kurdistan. In addition to the refugees who arrived in Ainkawa Thursday, thousands more reportedly fled Qaraqosh to the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Zakho.
“Sixty-five per cent of the people, they ran away from Qaraqosh,” said Laith al-Tonton, a 46-year-old policeman who waited with his family of six through the initial barrage of gunfire Wednesday night, but decided to flee when fighting resumed just before dawn Thursday. The family paid a passing driver 80,000 Iraqi dinars – about $80 (U.S.) – to take them 70 kilometres from Qaraqosh to Ainkawa.