One grey-haired woman understands more than most the fear that has gripped Iraq##s beleaguered Christian community over the past month. Her brother, Bashar al-Hazim, was among the first to be murdered in a wave of targeted killings that has forced more than 2,000 Christian families to flee the northern city of Mosul.
Masked gunmen walked up to Mr Hashim as he stood with his two children outside their house in the east-side of
“We##re peaceful people. When my brother was executed he had no enemies. Why was he killed? He was not a member of a party. There was no reason except for being Christian,” the woman, dressed in a black gown, said. Worried that they would be next, she and her family evacuated to Bartella, a Christian town 20 miles north of
They took shelter in a stone building attached to a churchyard, where some 19 other families were also gathered. Of the estimated 13,000 Christians to flee Mosul this month, some have since returned but the majority remain refugees in monasteries and convents to the north and east of the city as well as in spare rooms in the towns and villages that dot the Nineveh Plains.
In the churchyard dwelling, the only furniture is a smattering of beds, mattresses and plastic chairs. There is also a battered, old stove. Six of the families have dared to return to Mosul and others are planning to creep back in the coming days, but the dead man##s sister is staying put. “We cannot live in Mosul,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye.
Iraq##s rich blend of minority communities became a popular target for the insurgency that flared following the 2003 invasion. Tens of thousands of Christians as well as members of other sects such as Shabaks and Yazidis were forced out of major cities across the country under threat of death,
Many returned to the Nineveh Plains, a rural strip of land that has been home to minorities for centuries. But life is hard, with a lot of areas suffering from a lack of electricity and running water. There is no university so students must travel further afield to Mosul, often an impossible feat because of the dangers.
Hashim Mohsen is a Shabak from Mosul. He and his family left the city more than two years ago after his older brother was murdered. Mr Mohsen, a micro-biologist, has since lost a second brother and his house has been destroyed.
The nightmare began on July 27, 2006, when a car pulled up outside his front gate where his older brother, Amar, was sitting with four friends. Two masked gunmen stepped out, while a small boy sitting in the car, his face also shrouded, pointed at Amar, 29, and said: “That one”. The driver of the vehicle ordered his men to shoot. Amar tried to lunge at them but was restrained. The assailants pumped six bullets into his head and heart, shouting: “Allah Akubar (God is great)”.
That night the family received a note warning that their punishment for being Shia was death. Shabaks follow a form of Shia Islam. As a result, they have been repeatedly targeted by Sunni Islamist militants such as al-Qaeda.
“We left the next day to hold a funeral for my brother in the nearby village of Ali-Rash, where we stayed,” Mr Mohsen, in his late 20s, said. Four other related families, petrified that they too would be killed, also moved. They spent the next four months living in a mosque in the village before being able to build a two-roomed shack for the five families to inhabit.
Adding to the tragedy, a second brother ventured back to the Mosul house in December 2006 to pick up supplies for winter, such as blankets. He never returned. A neighbour later called up to say he too had been killed.
“We did not know who, what or why,” Mr Mohsen said, grim-faced. Last February, Iraqi forces raided his uncle##s house next door, which militants had turned into a base. After a 30-minute firefight, three men were killed and four men and three women taken away.
In the afternoon a supposed associate of the gang visited the neighbourhood and blew up the house. Months later, Mr Mohsen##s house was also levelled. Asked whether he would ever return to Mosul to re-start his life, the man said: “I cannot go home. They will kill us all in a day.”
The Times, London