(ERBİL) For the Iraqi Assyrians, the Islamic State (ISIS) attack against their homes, towns and villages was no less than an act of Genocide. But to understand the fate of the Iraqi Assyrians one must see through the culture of violence that took hold of the Middle East now for over one hundred years.
“Write down my demands,” told me Tawfeek Sakot, a man over seventy years old that I met in Ashti-2 refugee camp near Erbil, “The UN should recognize the persecution of the Christians as Genocide. Second, return to our lands and holy places, under international protection. Third, compensation for our losses. And fourth, a territorial entity for Christians, Yazidis and Shabak for self rule.”
Tawfeek Sakot was once a rich farmer in the town of Qaraqosh, in the fertile Ninveh Valley north Iraq, to the southeast of Mosul. Today he is a refugee in the Ashti-2 camp on the suburbs of Erbil. He is a refugee within his own country. After a career as primary school teacher mostly in Arab villages in Hilla province, he went back to his ancestral town and started farming. After three decades of hard work he had a prosperous farm with over 100 cows, grain production, and even a hotel. He shows me pictures of his farm, and official documents certifying that he possessed the 100 cows.
Then, one day, everything changed. It was on 23 June 2014, when he was working on his farm when Daesh fighters erupted. It was after the unexpected fall of Mosul, and Peshmerga fighters stationed in their region suddenly withdrew. “First, they treated us well,” Sakot said, “They brought us food and water.” But later, on July 17, they came back with a fatwa authorizing the confiscation of Christian property. “They forced my son to lay down on the ground, and they put a gun to my head. They pillaged all my farm,” he told me. Were they strangers, I asked? “I did not know their emir, who was an Iraqi. But all the others I knew, including the one who pointed a gun on me, his name was Muheidi Saleh Mazloom, he had been several times to my house, eaten bread with us,” he answered.
The ISIS attack in 2014 made 150-200 thousand Assyrians flee their homes in Ninveh province. Yet, this is not the start of their persecution. “What happened 100 years ago still effects us”, told me Ashur Sargon Eskrya, president of Assyrian Aid Society in Iraq. Just like the better-known case of the Armenian genocide, Assyrians have also become victims of deportations and massacres under Sultan Abdul Hamid II and later during the First World War, Assyrians were also victims of genocide, known as “Sayfo”, where one out of two Assyrians were killed.
In modern Iraq Assyrians persecution continued: in 1933 several thousand were massacred in Simele by Iraqi forces. “There is this idea that Saddam Hussein was good to Christians,” told me Eskrya, “He was the worst! We did not even have the right to say that we are Assyrians, we had to say that we were Arabs.” He also tells about continuous and banal discrimination against Assyrians. The ordinary discrimination against Assyrians turned into destructive violence after the US invasion of 2003. Two narratives emerge here. One is the assimilation by the local Arab population between Iraqi Christians and the invading armies. “A neighbouring lady once told me after the American invasion: ‘You should be happy now that those invaders who came speak the same language as you’” told me Ashur Eskrya. The American invasion destabilized the political hierarchy of Iraq. Those angry at the changes took the Iraqi Christians as an easy target for their violence. But there is the second narrative, which is the struggle between the Kurdish forces, Iraqi central authorities, and Sunni groups struggling over “disputed territories”.
Edris Merza from the Assyrian Democratic Movement said that relations between the various communities within Ninveh Valley were normal until the 2003 American invasion. A sever struggle emerged between Kurdish forces on the one side, and various Sunni militias on the other, for the control of the “disputed territories”. This lack of clear attribution led to the absence of any authority, or any public investment in infrastructure and services, increasing social tension in those regions. Moreover, severe power struggle was triggered between the central government in Baghdad, the KRG and various Sunni forces in Mosul.
Within the power struggle between Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi government and ISIS, minority groups like the Assyrians, as well as others, feel defenceless. They have no trust after the unexplained withdrawal of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, and Peshmerga from the contested territories. “If in the future Iraq would be divided to Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish entities, then we would like to have Ninveh with Sinjar and Tel Afar to be an entity,” according to Merza, “and to have it under international protection.” At the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were 1.5 million Assyrians. Today their number is put between 300 and 350 thousand. In case the trend is not changed a community even a civilization will disappear from Mesopotamia. After decades of persecution, Assyrians are migrating massively to Europe and the US.
Nabil Salim is originally from al-Muhandiseen neighbourhood in Mosul. Today, he is one of the 41 families living in the Shiyuz camp, a 40 minutes drive from Dohuk. When I asked him whether he would return home to Mosul in case the Iraqi Army or the Peshmerga liberate the town from Daesh, he thought for a moment and then said: “I don’t know.”