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„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

 

Arrival to Bakhdida

 

Check points are battle lines. Sounds absurd, I know, and in most cases it would be but not here. Not here in the land of ‘in-between’ as Assyrians of Nineveh put it. Their ancient homeland, till recently occupied by Daesh (Islamic State), is now contested by the Kurds and Arabs, as they position themselves on the ground in the much applauded offensive against Daesh. We’ve been told through the media by various sources that only around 300 hundred islamists remain dedicated to fighting in Mosul. But will their neutralisation bring peace? Or at least security and thus future especially for the minorities of northern Iraq – such as Yazidis and Assyrians? It is becoming increasingly visible that the answer to peace in Iraq is once again, unfortunately, no. Whoever follows the situation on the ground knows tensions are high and growing. Nineveh plain is for the taking and both, Erbil and Baghdad, will want their piece of it. Nobody will ask Assyrians for their opinion, instead the big players will probably let their guns to do all the talking. And here we return to check points.

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When you drive from Erbil/Ainkawa to Bakhdida (also known as Qaraqosh), you have to go through seven checkpoints. The distance is some 60 kilometers. First four are manned by peshmerga, Kurdish military force, the last one of which has all the familiar resemblance of a frontline with its bunkers and trenches. Cars, trucks and buses pass almost at ease through it, but it is not difficult to imagine that the next traffic will be tanks. At the next two check points one can see Iraqi flags accompanied with banners of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the vast Shia-dominated army of various paramilitary units. And – upon arrival to Bakhdida itself, in the very center, there is a check point of Nineveh Protection Units – a small, poorly armed but dedicated Assyrian force holding its ground. Next to them are stationed Iraqi police, behind them is a base of one of the PMF units and next to that is a temporary ‘court’ where they bring in captured Daesh militants from Mosul. As it happens our house is the next ‘base’. We are all neighbours here. From the garden of our house (the owners shall remain anonymous) we watch every day as Iraqi police bring in Daesh prisoners. The latter disappear into the building of the ‘court’, then reemerge blindofolded and handcuffed walking in a straight line while police officers, some of them suspiciously young, slap and kick them. A jeep or a minibus then drives the cursed Daesh away – to a proper prison or to their graves somewhere in the desert. We don’t know and frankly we don’t care.

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I must point out, that we don’t have these photos (yet). We asked politely if we could take them, but were refused by the police. Since we just arrived to Bakhdida we have no intent to immediately start provoking the brute authority that is so intent on slaping and kicking people. We’ll take our time, we’re in no hurry.

So let me instead talk about Bakhdida itself. We (Miha Mohorič and myself) heard in Ainkawa that refugees are suppose to begin returning to their homes already this month. I cannot imagine how this could be possible. Although some people actually did return, huge parts of the town remain uninhabitable. Black sceletons of once proud homes and private businesses defy optimism. A lot of work will have to be put in place before Bakhdida, whose beauty was savagely stripped away three years ago, will welcome life again. Most of the people one meets in the town wear military or police uniforms. And in most streets one sees nobody.

To be continued….

Erik Valenčič

Photos: Miha Mohorič

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