ISIS Is Gone, But Iraqi Christians Are Wary Of Returning Home : Parallels Christians in northern Iraq can now return to villages that the Islamic State occupied for the past two years. But the damage is extensive and many are not sure it's safe to go back.
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ISIS Is Gone, But Iraqi Christians Are Wary Of Returning Home

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ISIS Is Gone, But Iraqi Christians Are Wary Of Returning Home

ISIS Is Gone, But Iraqi Christians Are Wary Of Returning Home

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the area around Mosul in northern Iraq, there's a cluster of Christian villages nestled in among the hills. A bit more than two years ago, ISIS poured into those villages, and the people fled. Those extremists have now been pushed out in the battle to retake the city. NPR's Alice Fordham asked some villagers what they'll do now.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The villagers meet the traditional way, with prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

FORDHAM: But the meeting's not in the village. It's in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil next to corrugated trailers some of these people have been living in since 2014, when ISIS took over their village called Karemlash.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in foreign language).

FORDHAM: At the front stands a stark, metal cross with a white ribbon on it and a black one.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: With a flourish, the priest removes the black ribbon, celebrating the liberation of Karemlash from ISIS. Then he begins to sketch out a bright future, talks about repairing the houses damaged by fighting, filling in ISIS' tunnels. But people seem unconvinced. After the meeting, I speak with Maha al Kahwaji. She adores Karemlash.

MAHA AL KAHWAJI: (Through interpreter) But to return is difficult. It's not just difficult with the tunnels, the burning of homes and the destruction. It's impossible.

FORDHAM: She says the priest is dreaming. Just before ISIS took Karemlash, I reported from there. And I met a businessman called Taher Bahoo. He is determined to restore the village to life. So we go back. It's deserted, apart from security forces, and shows signs of heavy fighting.

TAHER BAHOO: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: This area in the front of the church that used to be a garden full of flowers - it's just four singed patches of earth. Two of the little lampposts have got a washing line strung across with a soldier's uniform drying.

BAHOO: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: I follow Bahoo inside the church building.

BAHOO: So it's the first tunnel.

FORDHAM: The first tunnel?

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: So ISIS built tunnels underneath the church?

BAHOO: Yeah, yeah - many tunnels here. So one of them is, like - make it a base for the sniper.

FORDHAM: Snipers, yeah.

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: With Iraqi soldiers, we walked through the tunnel that opens on a hill, overlooking the charred houses and streets full of shrapnel that used to be a tidy village.

BAHOO: When I was just 5, 6, 7 years age - was playing here.

FORDHAM: The destruction isn't the only obstacle to people coming back, as we learn from the only other civilian here, teacher Khalid Yaako Touma, who is salvaging family photos from his ruined house.

KHALID YAAKO TOUMA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says this is all the fault of the government. All the security forces melted away when ISIS came. So he'll never trust them again. A lot of villagers say the same thing and also that they're frightened of Muslims who live in the area. They believe, although it's not at all accurate, that those Muslims all joined ISIS. In a village close by, I meet a man who thinks he has the answer to this.

BEHNAM ABBUSH: My name is Gen. Behnam Abbush.

FORDHAM: The white-haired Abbush is a retired army general and now leads a Christian militia. He says he can protect Christians if they come back.

ABBUSH: They must put the security in the hand of the people of this land. That's what I want.

FORDHAM: And as we talk, he yells at his men to question a shepherd walking down the street in case he's a Muslim.

ABBUSH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Behnam tells me Muslims shouldn't be here.

ABBUSH: Because this is a Christian village.

FORDHAM: Back in Karemlash, the businessman Taher Bahoo takes a detour into his family house.

BAHOO: All my life, I was here.

FORDHAM: The orange and olive trees in the garden are overgrown. And the house is ransacked. He doesn't want his parents to see it yet. He goes inside to dig out the family-photo albums from the mess ISIS left behind. He leafs through. One album meant for wedding pictures has a little music box built in.

BAHOO: I don't know if he's still working.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BOX)

FORDHAM: There's his father in the military in the '60s, school trips, first communion.

(LAUGHTER)

FORDHAM: Is that you?

BAHOO: Yeah.

FORDHAM: (Laughter) You're, like - what? - 2.

He stays there a few minutes, lingering over the memories, sitting on the curb amid the fallen electricity wires, burned palm trees, bullet holes and the silence of the deserted little town. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Karemlash, northern Iraq.

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