When jihadists raided their ancient heartland last month, Iraq’s Christian Assyrians were left defenceless and fled, but now some have decided it is time to put up a fight.
In Sharafiya, a village that Kurdish peshmerga retook from Islamic State (IS) fighters just north of the jihadist hub of Mosul, the homes are still empty and only a few armed men can be seen patrolling.
From a distance, with their sand-coloured uniforms, they look like peshmerga. But their arm patches sport crossed rifles and the Assyrian flag — a golden circle in a blue four-pointed star with wavy red-white-blue stripes.
Meet the Dwekh Nawsha — an Assyrian phrase conveying self-sacrifice — one of the newest militias in the ever-expanding galaxy of Iraqi armed groups and one of the first to be exclusively Christian.
It was officially created on Aug 11, a week after the Nineveh plain exodus that clerics have called the worst disaster to ever befall Iraq’s Christians, and is made up of a modest 100 men. “We are small in size but big in faith,” said Lt-Col Odisho, the former Iraqi army officer in charge of training new recruits.
According to the Assyrian Democratic Movement, Iraq’s most prominent Christian political party, at least 2,000 men have already volunteered to fight the Islamic State group. But it says training and military equipment are badly needed to confront the jihadists and their army of suicide bombers, battle-hardened foreign fighters and looted US military gear.
In a bid to structure a real defence force, an Assyrian delegation recently travelled to Lebanon to seek inspiration and advice from the Lebanese Forces group, a Dwekh Nawsha member told AFP.
They met Samir Geagea, who has led the Lebanese Forces, the largest Christian militia in the country, since the last years of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war that killed some 150,000 people.
Geagea said his party would “support any decision made in consensus by Iraq’s Christians with a view to remaining” on their land, the fighter said. In neighbouring Syria, where IS already controlled swathes of land before their June offensive in Iraq,
Christians have long taken up arms, notably under the banner of the Syria Military Council. The outfit fights alongside the Syrian Kurdish YPG rebels. In Iraq, while there is no alternative for the Christians but to cooperate with the peshmerga, some wounds will take time to heal.
Many of the tens of thousands of Christians who fled their homes in panic in early August with nothing but their clothes blame the peshmerga for abandoning their posts and leaving them exposed.
A few miles north of Sharafiya lies Al-Qosh, a larger town nestled at the foot of a hill and a historic centre for the Assyrians, who have inhabited the region for millennia and once ran one of the dominant kingdoms of ancient Mesopotamia.
The jihadists never reached Al-Qosh and its ancient monastery carved into the mountainside when they swept the region in August but the population fled nonetheless. In the deserted dust-coated town, the headquarters of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, with its walls painted in the bright purple colour of the party, is hard to miss.
Inside the building, uniformed men sat around steaming cups of tea, their rifles laid down beside them. Most of them were Christian civilians who stayed behind to defend their town and every one of them gave the same account of the night of Aug 6-7, when the peshmerga retreated to Kurdistan.
“They left without telling anybody,” said Athra Kado. “They left the town’s men by themselves.” “Two days earlier they had assured us that we wouldn’t need any weapons, that they would protect us,” one of his tea-drinking comrades chipped in.
“The Kurds did not protect us, the Iraqi government did not protect us,” said a third militiaman in same group. The Kurdish peshmerga, buoyed by foreign military assistance, have since gone on the counter-offensive and returned to guard the town’s entrances.
But around 100 Christian fighters patrol Al-Qosh night and day. “Maybe they’ll just run away again, so this time we’re staying,” said Athra Kado.