Thankful and Relieved, Iraqi Christians Return to Hamdaniyah to Start Again
There is work to do rebuilding shattered homes and clearing improvised explosives
by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
Kicking up a cloud of ash, Amar Idris scuffs his feet through the charred remains of his family-run corner shop in the Iraqi-Christian town of Hamdaniyah. With purpose he searches through the blackened remains looking for anything that could be salvageable.
It’s hard to imagine there would be anything left. Islamic State militants torched the shop when they seized the town over two years ago, probably because it sold alcohol.
A friend helping Amar and his two brothers rummage through the remains of a book. Amar sorts through small pieces of yellowed paper. The burnt areas of the book surround each page like a deep black border, flaking away as he turns them over and over, scrutinizing the barely legible handwriting.
Outside the shop, a vehicle passes by, flying an Iraqi national flag from a window.
Amar isn’t the only one to come back to Hamdaniyah. Other Christian residents are returning, taking a trip of discovery to find out how much damage the Islamic State, and the resulting operation to liberate the town, have done to their homes.
Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh or Bakhdida, was Iraq’s largest Christian town with a population of around 50,000 people before militants overran it more than two years ago. Located some 20 miles to the east of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — the town has a rich history spanning back thousands of years.
Although becoming a front line town when the Islamic State seized Mosul in June 2014, Hamdaniyah became a refuge for fleeing Christians after the militants issued an ultimatum — pay a tax, convert to Islam or die.
Two months after the fall of Mosul in August 2014, everything changed. Islamic State militants flooded into the Nineveh Plains, and Kurdish troops retreated back to Erbil.
Yazidis on Mount Sinjar became surrounded, and thousands of people from the Nineveh Plains — Yazidi, Christian, Shabak and Kurd — fled to refugee camps in Iraq’s Kurdish territory. The Islamic State then seized Hamdaniyah on Aug. 6, 2014. The Christian population fled to nearby towns such as Bartella.
In October 2016, the Iraqi army and Christian militia fighters retook Hamdaniyah. The few Islamic State militants who were either trapped or stayed behind were not fully cleared out until the beginning of November.
The Iraqi Army, police and the Nineveh Plains Protections Units, or NPU — one of the militias that sprung up in reaction to the Islamic State — now provide security for the town, replacing the Kurdish peshmerga who filled that role until the Islamic State’s 2014 offensive.
Amar looks up at me and my translator from among the wreckage of his destroyed shop. “Is there a scientific way to get back the writing?” he asks.
I reply that I’m not sure. He grunts and goes back to staring at a piece of paper.
“This was a credit book,” he says, showing me numbers and figures written between barely visible lines. “Many of the customers in the book were Arabs [from the surrounding villages], the ones who turned against us when ISIS came.”
There is less damage inside the family home at the rear of the shop. Amar and his brothers, Arkan and Salam, have been back several times to clean up and hunt for anything useful left behind.
Some rooms have not yet been cleaned, and family possessions such as clothing and children’s toys lie in a thick layer in one room. However, the Islamic State defaced any Christian pictures that they found.
There is another, more ominous, sign of the Islamic State’s former presence.
In the corner of a downstairs hallway, several odd-looking containers are stacked in piles. The beige plastic tubs, complete with a large screw-on ring and plastic rubber pressure plate, are components for improvised explosive devices.
Amar and his family stacked the containers when they first started cleaning up the house. He says they threw the explosives away.
Like many residents, Amar and his brothers can’t stay in Hamdaniyah for long. The town’s proximity to an active front line, a little more than a mile away, and the large amount of IEDs left by militants — and unexploded ordnance from the battle for its liberation — mean that it’s not safe.
For those reasons, the security forces allow residents to return for a short while every few days.
A car passes down the dusty main street of the town.
It’s occupants smile and laugh as the vehicle rocks on its suspension over the unstable roadway. As they pass me, hands come flashing peace signs. They disappear in a cloud of dust, a huge Iraqi flag flying from the car’s radio antenna.
An Iraqi police officer walks over and asks if we’d like to see what was an Islamic State headquarters. We walk down an alleyway, past several policemen lounging on plastic lawn chairs outside a building, and then into a half-finished house.
“This is where they [ISIS] killed people,” the officer says.
He motions toward a table lying on its side. The table is around six feet long — long enough for a person. At the height where the average person’s neck would be is a large, bloody stain.
The policeman points toward the wall at the back of the room — and faded, bloody splatters visible in a diagonal line. He says he thinks there are still dead bodies in the house next door, buried after being hit by a coalition or Iraqi air strike.
The Iraqi police are not taking many chances. We’re told there are still IEDs hidden throughout the town. We then head toward a shop farther along the same street. The police officer looks at me and holds his nose.
He pulls a face that suggests I might not like the smell.
The smell is noticeable as soon as we walk through the door, and flies buzz annoyingly, settling on anything that stops moving. This business, unlike Amar’s shop, was not burnt, but many work surfaces and fittings appear to have been shifted around, cluttering the room in a random manner.
Most of the small shop is covered in a thin layer of sand — the door has been open for some time. The police officer motions toward a rusty refrigerator at the back of the shop, telling me not to get too close.
As I get to where the officer is standing, a sharp, thick odor of decomposition emanating from the fridge grows stronger. Beneath the fridge is a dark puddle of liquid which seeps under the appliance.
“We’re sure there’s a body in there,” says the police officer, looking glum. “But even if it doesn’t there’s no way to tell if the fridge also contains an IED.”
The translator and I walk through the town. I’m looking for places that I visited before in 2014 when covering Christian refugees who fled to Hamdaniyah from Mosul. We ask two men standing next to a Toyota 4×4 for directions.
On my laptop, I show them a picture of a priest giving mass in the town’s Christian academy, and one of them smiles.
As we stand, a priest walks from behind the 4×4. He looks older, more worn and with a few more grey hairs and a beard, but it’s the same priest from my picture. His name is Father Ignatius Offey.
He doesn’t remember me, but shakes my hand and smiles. Offey explains that he’s back in the town to visit the churches and look for anything that can be saved.
I ask if we can come with him to the next church. He says yes.
Offey takes us to the Syriac Catholic Church of Mar Behnam and his sister Mart Sarah — one of several that he delivers services at.
The church is in a sorry state.
Both bell towers have been demolished and lie in ruins. Offey and some of the Christians accompanying him ring the bell. The sound rings out around the church, which brings a sad mood, but at the same time defiant — they are back.
The inside of the church is intact, but is just a burnt and empty cavernous husk. Islamic State militants probably torched it soon after seizing the town — as even when we step through the ashes they smell of dust.
The building’s solid construction saved it, but there’s nothing inside except for the remains of a vandalized altar. Fire gutted the room containing the font for baptisms.
Offey picks through the ashes in the main hall and examines several partially destroyed objects, then discards them on the floor. This is the father’s sixth visit to Hamdaniyah since its liberation. He says that all of the churches are like this.
As two armed, Iraqi Bell IA-407 helicopters fly over, I leave in search of other places I had visited before. The next stop on my list is the Christian academy where I once photographed Offey giving mass.
We take a long, looping route through the center of town, past buildings showing the signs of air strikes and damage inflicted by the Islamic State during the occupation. Eventually we find the academy and link back up with Offey.
Offey has an office here — now ransacked with everything thrown onto the floor. Despite this, Offey found some usable possessions picked from among the mess.
We learn that the complex is clear of IEDs — always a constant worry in newly liberated towns. The remains of one such device lies outside on top of a jumble of Christian books, now reduced to a lumpy mass after two years exposed to everything the weather could throw at them.
In the academy’s main courtyard, militants appear to have burned the grass, smashed the windows and partially broke a fountain. They also tried to smash a large, concrete cross that dominates the courtyard. But they stopped without finishing the job.
I glance at a local who is showing us around the academy. He looks non-plussed about the damage to the cross.
“This is concrete, it can be rebuilt,” he says with a smile.
We carry on.
An upstairs library has not fared so well.
The ceiling is gone, and the only sign it was there is the supporting framework and concrete walls, scorched bare. Ceiling fans hang with blades drooping toward the floor, looking like dirty wilted flowers.
Not much survived the inferno that raged here, and Offey is visibly upset about the state of the room. A thick layer of ash coats the floor, and occasional mounds mark the location of larger burnt tomes.
The shape of individual pages are visible in the piles, but touching them is fruitless. The fragile mounds just collapse into themselves, breaking down into a finer ash.
A man who is helping Offey comes into the library. He looks happy. In his arms he clutches different colored material. Somehow, the militants who worked to vandalize and loot the church missed a full set of priest’s robes.
Offey examines the clothing with a smile — they’re in good condition.
There’s a recognizable pattern behind the Islamic State’s actions. In Hamdaniyah and in Bartella, the militants burned and destroyed anything that was definitely religious — such as churches and books.
However, if the militants found a use for a space, they left it alone.
An example of the latter is the academy’s large, underground assembly room. In 2014, I took pictures of a service given here by Father Offey.
Not much about the room has changed. The floor is clean and empty and chairs are stacked where Offey once stood at the altar. The only damage is to metal crosses left behind in a cupboard.
Offey hangs a painting of Jesus Christ on the wall. When he’s finished, I ask why the Islamic State didn’t damage the room.
“We found basketballs and soccer balls in here,” he says. “They were not left by us.”
He explains that as far as they can tell, Islamic State extremists, who banned sports in the areas they occupied, look to have used the hall to play sports.
“Maybe they were foreign fighters?” he wonders.
Logically, it would make sense to play sports in a large room hidden from coalition air strikes and the prying eyes of surveillance aircraft. It’s also the second time I’ve come across a report like this. The last time was in Bartella where five soccer goal posts were discovered inside a large church hall.
Outside the church, a local named Ra’id Kemal offers to guide us to the last place I want to visit — a row of homes where he and other Christian refugees lived in August 2014. He currently resides in the Christian neighborhood in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan.
At a junction he points us down a track. An Iraqi army truck bounces down the worn and rutted surface, a cloud of dust following in its wake.
Though a good amount of Hamdaniyah’s homes escaped with just smashed windows, the houses along the track reveal bullet holes and impact marks from large-caliber weapons.
Sometimes it’s easy to become detached and just think of the houses as damaged buildings. But every single one was somewhere a family called home, and all will need a lot of work to make that possible again.
An explosion had created a huge hole in the corner of the first house. The wall is cracked and smashed, showing the pattern of brickwork which shifted below the concrete rendering.
Just about every window is broken in every house along the row. Children’s toys lie discarded on the ground in front of the homes, either left when Ra’id and his family escaped to Erbil or thrown outside when the Islamic State cleared out the buildings.
Everywhere, long weeds have grown up.
It’s not always possible to take exactly the same picture — and it would be foolish to assume that some of the places where I once stood are safe to stand on now. We’ve learned that the row of homes have been cleared of IEDs, but there’s no guarantee the areas outside are safe.
The homes were newly finished when the refugees moved in more than two years ago. Now some will require even more work to get them back to being habitable.
Inside the home where Ra’id lived with his extended family, everything they had is gone. The only items present in the house are mattresses, slept on by Islamic State fighters who occupied the homes, and boxes that once contained aid given by western NGOs.
The house seems eerily quiet.
Trucks have stopped passing on the track, and I begin looking up older pictures on my laptop taken from back when the family lived here.
Passing back through the town on our way to the Mosul-Erbil highway we pass more cars filled with returning locals.
The people of Hamdaniyah are only just beginning to repair their town, and it may take a while to complete, since they cannot move back permanently until the front line moves. But everyone we met was cheerful and happy to be back in the place they called home.
One man summed up the mood of Hamdaniyah’s residents.
I bumped into him outside the town’s Christian academy as he was photographing a home with a smartphone. The home belonged to a friend who was too scared to return, due to the town’s explosive contents and its proximity to the front line.
The walls above the windows are blackened by soot. At some point, something inside had caught fire. Despite this, the man is happy. Most of the town’s buildings are made of thick concrete.
“We build our houses to last,” the man says. “We’re used to violence, we’ve had 40 years of it.”