The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is working against time, together with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) to repair and rebuild as many family homes as possible, so that the Syriac Catholic families can return in time for the beginning of the school year. Already at least 600 families have returned to this town in the Nineveh plains. Father Georges Jahola, who is in charge of the Syriac Catholic team on the NRC, predicts confidently: “In 10 years time the city will be repopulated as it was before IS.”
The town of Baghdeda (or Qaraqosh) on the plains of Nineveh is engaged in a fight against time, a fight for life. In September the schools will be reopening there. The Syriac Catholic families, who were forced to flee the town three years ago to escape the violence of the fighters of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and who have spent the last three years as internal refugees in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, now want to return home finally – if possible in time for the beginning of the school year for their children.
“The schools in Baghdeda have been repaired by various international agencies such as the UN”, explains Father Georges Jahola, a Syriac Catholic priest who is in charge of the Syriac Catholic team and a member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, tasked with rebuilding the city. “Unfortunately, however, the houses of the Christian families who want to return have not yet been rebuilt. Before the arrival of IS there were around 5,000 Syriac Catholic families here, of whom around 60% have school-age children. If their homes are not yet ready for habitation by September, these families might well decide to go elsewhere, and this time for good. On the other hand, if we succeed, I am sure that within 10 years, despite those families that do not return, Baghdeda will have been repopulated and there will be just as many Christians here as before.”
In this town, 2 ½ years of occupation by thousands of IS militants – who, Father Georges suggests, “probably had their operational base right here” – have left a “legacy” of some 6,327 homes needing to be rebuilt. The terrorists set fire to 2,269 homes, partially damaged 3,950 apartments and bombed another 108. Together with other organisations, ACN is helping to rebuild these homes, starting with those that are least damaged. In fact 47 have already been rebuilt in Sector E of the city. “The families are responding to this signal of hope and are beginning to return”, Father Georges remarks. “In Baghdeda 600 families have already returned. And then we have around 120 workers who have already transferred here to work on their homes while their families are still waiting in Erbil to be able to rejoin them. The children especially are so happy to be able to return home”, he adds.
In order to be able to bring life back to Baghdeda, the water and electricity networks are gradually being repaired. “The electricity supply is slowly returning. The government in Baghdad has repaired the old generators and purchased 15 new ones, which are still not enough, however. In fact we would need at least another 150. The terrorists of the Islamic State also damaged the water supply network and in some areas of the town there is still no water. The authorities really need some form of earthmoving equipment, which we have not got, however”, Father Jahola explains.
The real beating heart of the reconstruction effort in Baghdeda is precisely here, in the offices of the Syriac Catholic team, led by Father George. “Every day we receive phone calls from Christian families who want to return home. Our engineers go and check on the structural condition of their homes and record the damage. Then they return to the office here and register the data recorded in the survey. More and more families are asking us to provide a cost estimate for the repair of their homes – in fact on account of the many requests in the last few days we have even had to engage two more engineers.”
Despite the difficulties, other Christian families are now slowly returning to other places too, including Bartella, a majority Syriac Orthodox town on the Nineveh plains. Of the 650 families who lived here before the invasion of IS, 24 have now already returned. In this town, which was occupied from 6 August 2014 until 20 October 2016, IS burnt down 69 homes belonging to Syriac Catholic families, damaged 274 and totally destroyed 19. Father Benham Benoka of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee is overseeing the reconstruction of these homes in Bartella. As in Baghdeda, a team of engineers visits the homes, surveys the structural damage and provides a cost estimate. “This is the home of Dhiya Behnam Nuna, and it was built on the ruins of old Bartella”, explains Father Benoka. “The terrorists smashed holes in the walls of the apartments, so they could move from house to house without being spotted by the American helicopters”, he explains, as we walk from house to house through these very same holes in the house walls.
The ground is covered with all kinds of ruined items – holy pictures, items of clothing, mattresses and pieces of furniture. It seems impossible that anyone could come back to live here. And yet there is an engineer measuring the size of the holes in the walls. Before long, Mr Dhiya Behnam Nuna will have new windows in his house.
The challenges facing Christians in the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 registered families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people), nearly 13.000 homes to be rebuilt, security concerns in the villages, Kurdish-Iraqi political maneuvering on the ground, infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics) and most importantly the transition period between the end of monthly rentals and food packages and the move of these families to the restored villages. Drawing from the most recent surveys updated by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee on July 14, 2017, 1228 families have already returned to Nineveh Plains and 423 properties are being renovated of which 157 have been restored through financial contributions by ACN.
Since the crisis began, Aid to the Church in Need has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, a total of 31 million euros has been donated for emergency aid including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.