„We can return to Bakhdida. But then what? “

This question has been torturing the minds of most of the Assyrians from Bakhdida (including the neighbouring towns Nineveh and, of course, Mosul). We’ll get to this question a bit later. Firstly, a sincere apology for not writing any reports in the last week or so. Filming consumed most of our time during the day and come night I was unable to think properly, let alone compose coherent sentences about Bakhdida, a war torn town slowly coming back to life. However, by now us, Miha Mohorič and I have managed to acclimatise to a steady 47 – 50 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, it was suggested to me that I should write something positive about the entire experience in Bakhdida. This poses a serious challenge. Even when the wind blows (generally a positive thing), it feels like somebody is throwing invisible flames into your face as if angry spirits wanted to chase all the people away. Still, life persists… And we document it as best as we can.

About 200 families returned to Bakhdida in the past months. Some have nowhere to return though. Their houses are black skeletons as they were burned by Daesh (Islamic state). During the fighting last September/October islamists tried to create a black fog above the city to disrupt coalition and Iraqi airstrikes. There was no real logic or plan involved in this. Some houses were burned, others not. People say around 30 percent of homes and businesses were burned. It seems a lot more – closer to 50 percent. We accompany people visiting their houses. Dead silence is sometimes interrupted by sighs of relief, sometimes with cries of anguish. “Is this merciful? Is this what their religion is about?!” shouted a distressed older lady in the middle of her living room with everything around her reduced to ashes. Another woman in yet another house cried silently on the terrace. We left her alone, no need to get everything on camera.

Young artist Nenous, centre protagonist of our film, works all days painting people’s houses with a group of about ten workers. They take part in a project, supported by international organisations, to renovate one hundred homes. These are homes that were not burned, ‘merely’ defaced with Daesh graffiti exclaiming “Islamic state forever” and similar lunacies. From time to time Nenous takes time off and we dedicate ourselves to the movie. With Babylon battalion, a Christian para-military unit that is part of a Shia-dominated Popular mobilisation forces, we visited Nimrud, ruins of an ancient Assyrian city. I think we all saw the videos of Daesh destroying Nimrud together with the famous Lamassu. Nenous made a copy of it in the house, in which we reside in Bakhdida, finished it in Nimrud and placed it on top of the destroyed statue of the Assyrian protective deity. It is a symbol of resistance, a declaration of peace, as if to say: “You can destroy, but we can rebuild.”

It was a touching moment, but journey back to Bakhdida made me less optimistic about everything. We drove through numerous check-points manned by different para-military and military forces. Their banners are proudly on display but what they display is a very strong possibility of a turf war.

“You know, we are peaceful people. In all of Bakhdida you couldn’t find more than a couple of guns. We cannot fight against islamists and others, what we need is an international protection,” explained an older man who returned to his house. Less and less Assyrians believe that they will get it and so exodus out of Iraq is continuing. This is the paradox that Western media and international community as a whole don’t seem to understand. Was Bakhdida liberated? Yes – at least temporarily. But does this mean that everything will get better henceforth? No. „We can return to Bakhdida. But then what? “, asked the same gentleman. Exactly. Then what? You can repaint houses, rebuild what was destroyed, put Lamassu back together and return it to its rightful place. But then what? We hear that half of the people of Bakhdida are already out of Iraq. Many, especially the young ones, who are still in Ainkawa (Erbil) would prefer to stay there. We see the young men in Ainkawa hanging in beauty salons all the time. Sometimes I don’t know what to think of it.

Those who returned to Bakhdida are too few. And even if all did return, they cannot remain there without international protection. The older gentleman who posed the ‘then what?’ question has cancer. He could get treatment in Erbil. We visited hospital in Bakhdida. To say it is immensely underequipped would still be an understatement. Doctors cannot cure his disease here. He understands this. But it is more important for him that he returned home. He came back to die in his house.

Erik Valenčič, Bakhdida


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