Three years ago, as darkness fell over the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, Sabah Petrus Shema helped his extended family pile into a pickup truck and leave town. When they were gone, he grabbed two Kalashnikovs and waited as the sound of mortar fire drew near.
Miles down the road, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was advancing. By early the next morning, nearly all of the town’s residents were gone, and a stream of panicked soldiers began to pass through, retreating from the front. That’s when Shema knew it was time to flee. “It was a painful decision,” he says. “We were leaving behind our homes, our churches, everything. All we took was our clothes, our IDs and some money.”
Qaraqosh was among dozens of towns in northern Iraq that ISIS overran in 2014. Over the past three years, the Iraqi army has regrouped, with the help of Shiite militias, Kurdish forces and American airpower, driving the militants out of all but a few small pockets, such as central Mosul. But while predominantly Muslim towns have begun to rebuild, in Qaraqosh and other mostly Christian places, few residents have returned. Fearing more war and extremism, many worry they never will. “The future in Iraq is full of ambiguity,” says Shema, who now lives in a refugee camp in Erbil. “After ISIS is gone, there may be another group that is even worse.”
Today, most of Qaraqosh looks like ghost town. Weeds and wildflowers have sprouted along the main roads, and there’s an eerie silence, save for the occasional passing truck filled with soldiers from the Nineveh Plains Unit, a Christian militia.
The destruction of Qaraqosh was systematic, and everywhere you look, the buildings are charred from flames. ISIS fighters went from home to home, dousing them in chemicals and setting them ablaze. In churches, they smashed religious icons and slashed the faces of paintings of Jesus and Mary. Throughout the town, they left booby traps and improvised explosive devices, some of which remain.
Yousif Yaqoub, the president of the Beth Nahrin National Union, an Assyrian Christian political party, believes the militants wanted to make the town uninhabitable, to send a message to the country’s Christians. “It’s not just in Qaraqosh,” Yaqoub tells Newsweek by phone from Erbil. “In the other Christian towns too, they tried to destroy every single house.”
Given Qaraqosh’s disrepair, it’s understandable that few residents want to return. Yet other Muslim-majority towns suffered worse destruction and have sprung back to life in the months since ISIS fled. Even in Mosul, where fierce fighting continues, once shuttered stores have reopened, and empty neighborhoods are now bustling with people. On a visit to the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of western Mosul in April, just a month after it was recaptured, shopkeepers were repainting their blackened storefronts even as gunfire and explosions erupted a few blocks away.