Fleeing child abduction, slavery, rape and theft in Iraq
A Christian woman forced to flee Mosul describes the terror there
Inas (left), an Iraqi Christian living in exile in Paris, talks often to her sister Mariam, a refugee from the jihadists of the Islamic State, via Skype. Photograph: Lara Marlowe
Mariam, a 50-year-old Christian obstetrician from Mosul in Iraq, considers herself and her family lucky, though she fears they will never again see the two-storey villa and garden they inherited from her husband Youssef’s parents.
The walls have been daubed with the Arabic letter “noon” or “N” for “Nazarene,” the name used by fundamentalist Muslims to designate Christians.
“This property has been confiscated by the Islamic State for Abu Talha al Ansari,” reads a sign on the gate. Mr Ansari is a local Sunni who joined the extremists.
In a Skype conversation from the home of her sister Inas, a lawyer who has political asylum in Paris, Mariam recounts the nightmare of the last two months.
The contents of Mariam and Youssef’s library has been dumped in the street, neighbours have told them. Christians who didn’t leave Mosul in time have converted, or are hiding, terrorised, in the homes of Muslim neighbours.
Mariam and Youssef first fled on June 10th in a mass exodus of Muslims and Christians, as the jihadists approached Mosul. They went to Ainkawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, where they used savings to rent a house.
“I went to the market and bought a cooker, fridge and mattresses,” Mariam says. “We started from scratch.
“There are thousands of Christians in Ainkawa,” Mariam says. “They sleep in the streets, churches, schools, parks. They sleep on the ground.
“The border is closed and flying to Turkey or Baghdad is the only way out. But it costs $500 to fly to Turkey, $200 to Baghdad, and the waiting list is weeks long. People who can’t afford lodging don’t have money for plane tickets either. We are trapped.”
‘Convert or leave’Mariam calls the extremists by their Arabic name, Da’esh. “In the beginning, Da’esh said, ‘We will not hurt anyone.’ Poor people went back because they have no jobs or money and cannot pay rent in Erbil.”
She and Youssef returned, in the hope of saving their property. On the night of July 17th, vehicles circulated in Mosul with tannoys blasting the Islamic State’s decree: “Christians must convert to Islam, pay a ‘jizya’ tax levied on non-Muslims, or depart.”
Mariam and Youssef piled possessions into their Kia car and headed back to Erbil. They were terrified of the black-clad jihadists wearing balaclavas at checkpoints but they were allowed through unharmed. “Thank God, we were warned that they were looking for girls, and we had left Rita (their 16-year-old daughter) in Erbil,” Mariam says.
Those who waited until morning were less fortunate. “Da’esh took everything: money, jewellery, clothing, identity papers, their cars,” Mariam says. “They even took the shirts off the men’s backs, and made them walk.
“My neighbour in Erbil has a two-year-old daughter. They said, ‘Give her to us. We will raise her.’ My neighbour cried and pleaded for half an hour. Then they forced the baby’s father to kiss their shoes, to humiliate him.”
Stories of gang-rape by jihadists, a practice known as “jihad al-nikah” or “sexual jihad,” abound. It was allegedly “legitimated” by a religious leader in Tunisia to help the Islamic State recruit young men. Sunni girls in Mosul have reportedly died by suicide rather than accept multiple forced “marriages”.
Kidnapped and rapedMembers of the Yazidi community who met French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Erbil at the weekend told him some 500 Yazidi women have been kidnapped and 50 were taken to Mosul to be sold as slaves. The Yazidis are Kurdish-speaking people from a Zoroastrian religion, considered infidels by the Islamic State. “They have fared worse than the Christians,” says Mariam. “They are massacring Yazidis and raping their women.”
Displaced Yazidis are believed to number 400,000.
Some 120,000 Christians have fled Mosul and surrounding Christian villages. “A few days ago, Da’esh were 20km from Erbil,” Mariam says. “The Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) were running from them. Because of the American air strikes, they’ve pulled back a little.”
Some commentators say Obama is reinforcing the Muslim perception that the “crusader” west has intervened only because Christians are in danger. “All the other communities in Iraq have militias,” Mariam says. “Christ opposed violence. We have no guns. We need protection.”
Mariam was cheered by Mr Fabius’s vague promise to arm the Peshmerga. “But the Peshmerga alone are not strong enough to face such a challenge,” she says. “When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, 32 countries joined a coalition to drive the Iraqi army out. Why isn’t there a coalition of 32 countries now, to liberate northern Iraq?”
After the Islamic State seized Mosul, France, the traditional protector of Arab Christians, promised them political asylum. The consulate in Erbil was deluged with applications. When Mariam went to apply, the building was closed. “A notice says all immigration has stopped until further notice,” she says.
France appears to be having second thoughts. “Organising the departure of Christians from Iraq is tantamount to accepting the victory of the jihadists,” Mr Fabius said in Erbil on Sunday. “It’s like saying the Christians have no future in their own country.”
Most of Mariam’s family have already moved to Europe or Jordan. “I love Iraq and I love Mosul,” she says, her voice breaking. “We have been here for 2,000 years. Our churches, our history are here. When you take the Christians out of Mosul, you cut the last roots of our existence.”