By: Andreas Thonhauser, Director of Communications for ADF International
She did not blink. We could tell that the mother of three had shared her story before. Marijam* remained calm while her husband translated every word that she so carefully formulated. After the terrorists had stormed her brother’s house in a small village in the Nineveh plain in the northern part of Iraq, they first beat him. Simply because Jakub’s* family was Christian. But when he started to push back, to defend his children and his wife, they immediately struck him down. “We will crucify you like your dog, Jesus Christ,” they threatened him. And then the torture began. They made his children watch, she explained.
He was beaten with rods and with sticks with sharp nails at one end. They tore off his clothes. They spat at him. They kicked and stabbed him. From six o’clock in the afternoon until eleven o’clock at night they would not let go of him. They finally nailed his hands to a wooden plank and erected the cross. Then they let him hang. All the while they forced his family to watch. Until they shot him in his mouth. His wife and kids have barely recovered from this traumatic experience. They are being treated and taken care of somewhere in Europe.
Nightmare Without End
For Jakub’s family the nightmare had an end, albeit a tragic one. For most of the Iraqi Christians it is ongoing. They are yet to wake up. This also is true for those who managed to escape the murderous hands of ISIS and fled to Iraq’s neighboring countries.
Tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities abandoned their homes in the Nineveh plain when ISIS started to attack in the summer of 2014. Mosul fell in July, Qaraqosh, a mainly Christian city in the same region followed in August. Most managed to escape to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish controlled part of Iraq. Many are still there, housed in refugee camps, living in tents, hoping on the benevolence of the few Christians and churches of the city. Those, who had some money or resources like their own car, tried to leave Iraq altogether. Amman, the capital city of Jordan, was one of the places where many Christians fled.
A Light in the Darkness
This is where we met Marijam and her family. We went to Amman to document testimonies of Iraqi Christians that had escaped ISIS. ADF International’s attorneys and experts made sure they were recorded in the right way to be acceptable by international tribunals and their Commissions of Inquiry. It was not an easy mission. We encountered traumatized families, people who had been tortured, children who had been abducted. But where there is a lot of darkness, the light shines even brighter.
Many are helping. First and foremost, our allies on the ground, Christian organizations who were distributing food and counseling, trying to comfort the refugees in their plight at least a little bit. Knowing that the families we would interview are living in extreme poverty, we also asked our colleagues around the world to help us provide some food for the refugees. The response from our team members was astonishing. We were able to deliver more than 60 food packs, each supplying a family of six to eight for at least eight weeks.
Documenting Their Testimonies
ADF International is not in the line of humanitarian or relief work. It is important to fight the symptoms but we want to defeat the disease. In this case it means bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice and ensuring the protection of and support for the victims. The first step is to have an international recognition that genocide is taking place. Since January we have provided evidence and legal analysis to the UK Parliament, the U.S. State Department and international institutions including the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, each of which went on to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS as genocide.
Sadly, the UN Security Council still has not done so. It also has not referred the situation to the International Criminal Court. But we are still attempting to get the Court involved as we continue to gather the much needed evidence of the crimes committed against Christians in the Middle East.
Visitors, Not Refugees
Jordan allowed Iraqi Christians into its territory as visitors, not as refugees. The kingdom is known for its tolerance of other religions and Christians have a fairly safe life. But Iraqis have to pay for their food, their lodging, and Jordan is not cheap. Since they are not allowed to earn money, most of the Christians have used up whatever resources they had stowed away somewhere. They are desperate because they know, they will not be able to survive much longer.
“We are all hoping to be granted refugee status soon to leave the Middle East and continue on to Canada or Australia,” Salam explained to us. The young Christian from Qaraqosh was our guide in Amman. He took and introduced us to the families we interviewed. And all of them agreed with Salam: They are desperate to leave Jordan. Most of them don’t want to go back to Iraq, either. They don’t trust their neighbors anymore. One told us that he saw how some of his former friends welcomed ISIS into Mosul, handing the fighters little chocolate bars.
The Mark of the Outlaws
Although their patriarchs want the refugees to return to their homes, once ISIS is defeated, the Christians in Amman have different ideas. “In Iraq there is no future for us,” Mikhail* explains. Together with his wife he oversees a small project run by a Christian church in Amman, allowing refugees to voluntarily produce tiles, caps, t-shirts, soaps, and bookmarks that are being used to fundraise.
Nobody gets paid, but they do receive support. Mikhail shows us their products. The tiles are beautifully crafted and display the Arabic letter N. “ISIS sprayed this symbol on our doors in Mosul, to mark the houses of Christians that ought to be raided. ‘N’ stands for Nazarene, which denotes those who follow Jesus of Nazareth,” he explained. It also marked those who had lost all their rights.
Losing everything but their lives
Like all the others, Mikhail and his family lost everything but their lives. He still does not feel safe. ISIS also has followers in Amman and many believe their numbers are growing rapidly. But Mikhail cannot leave. He is not recognized as a refugee. He cannot work. He has been waiting for a long time to be allowed to leave the country with his wife and kids and travel on to a safer place, start a new life and put behind them what has happened in Iraq. Maybe he would consider returning to the Nineveh plain in a few years if it is safe enough.
Mikhail wants ISIS to be held accountable for what they have done to his family, to his people, to his country.
According to the definition of international law Mikhail should be considered a victim of genocide. Therefore, he should deserve some kind of protection and at least the right to migrate, if he so wishes. But the international community is slow to act. Perhaps his testimony will help to convince the powerful to assist the desperate? “My children should grow up in a better place,” he told us. This is what keeps him going.
Stop the Idea of ISIS
Like all the people we interviewed, Mikhail does not seek revenge. He gathers weekly with friends to pray for the terrorists, so that they might have a change of heart. Nevertheless, he is very clear about what he expects from the international community: justice. He wants ISIS to be held accountable for what they have done to his family, to his people, to his country. “We need to stop the idea of ISIS,” he said, which is to kill everyone who does not share their opinions and belief.
Let us make no mistake, justice will not bring back people like the crucified Jakub. But holding the perpetrators to account might save Jakub’s kids from experiencing their father’s suffering all over again.
* names changed for security reasons