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.
Of his three children, Mr. al-Tonton watched his five-year-old daughter with particular concern. "I'm worried about her. She didn't sleep at all last night. She was so scared," he said. Meanwhile, his three-year-old son was dozing on the floor of the youth centre beside a sporadically functioning air conditioner, seemingly unbothered by his chaotic new surroundings.
Kurds open doors to refugees
The Christians from Qaraqosh are part of a much larger tide of refugees who have flooded Iraqi Kurdistan since ISIL and its allies began capturing large swaths of territory earlier this month. Aid agencies estimate there are now 500,000 displaced people from other parts of Iraq now living in the Kurdish north, in addition to 250,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria, which many see as having become one with the conflict in Iraq.
Across Iraq, an estimated 1.6 million people have been dislodged by the upsurge in Sunni-Shia fighting, joining another million who never returned to their homes following an earlier round violence in 2006 and 2007.
Many of those fleeing the ISIL advance came north because they don't want to live in an area governed by gunmen with a strict interpretation of Islam.
"Some of them are running because they are afraid they will be killed. Some of them [are running] because they don't have life anymore – you don't have schools, hospitals, normal life. And for women, this is a disaster. They cannot go out anymore," Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, said in an interview this week.
"People are looking at two [options]. ISIL areas are killing fields, Kurdish areas have freedom."
But while there are fewer refugee settlements than the overall numbers suggest – most of the new arrivals are being hosted by local families, or came with enough money to stay in hotels – the presence of so many extra people has strained life in Kurdish cities such as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Lineups for a tank of gas stretch hundreds of cars long and it often takes the better part of a day to roll to the front of the queue.
The crisis started by the ISIL advance is still less than three weeks old, but already many new arrivals in Iraqi Kurdistan say they are hoping to stay.
"People are not looking to go back at this point, not until they have a better idea of where it's going to stand in terms with security," said Nora Love, interim country director for the International Rescue Committee, an international aid organization that deals with refugee crises. "I think this is going to be a long-term situation."
While the Kurdistan Regional Government professes to have an "open door" policy to refugees, aid workers say it has actually been careful about which Sunni and Shia Muslim refugees it admits to its territory. Women and families are usually allowed in, though only on 15-day permits, while men travelling on their own are often kept out. Thousands who don't have the right papers to cross the de facto border are stranded in the Khazar refugee camp, just outside the Kurdish-administered region.
But the Kurdish government appears to have made an exception for the Christian refugees, first sending fighters to help defend Qaraqosh, then asking no questions of fleeing residents who made their way to Ainkawa.
"Most of Qaraqosh came to Kurdistan because they feel safe here and closer to the Kurdish nation," said Withaq Shamoun, a 37-year-old labourer who arrived in Ainkawa Thursday morning with his wife and two children. The four were sharing a single mattress as they awaited news about temporary accommodation.
"I hope Iraq will break up and Qaraqosh will become part of [an independent] Kurdistan," Mr. Shamoun said.
That may just be what's happening: southern Iraq splitting into Sunni and Shia Muslim ministates, and the country's Christians – and other religious minorities – moving to the Kurdish north, which seems closer than ever to seeking formal independence.
"Logically, Iraq is splitting now. The Kurds have been governing themselves from 1991 to now. We have a strong military, a rising economy and a semi-independent state," said Ano Jawhar Abdoka, an official with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party who on Thursday was helping settle new refugees in Ainkawa.
"The Sunnis don't accept Shia hegemony over them – they [the Sunnis] ruled Iraq from Ottoman times to now, 500 years – and the Shia don't want to be ruled by the Sunnis again," said Mr. Abdoka.
And the Christians? "The Christians feel safe here because most Kurds are secular people," Mr. Abdoka said. "There is no push for them to go back. They can stay."