- Posted August 15, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your stories from the Middle East
Genocide In Our Time (The Tragedy Facing Iraq's Christians and Other Religious Minorities)
Approximately three years ago while employed as a security supervisor for the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Sherman Oaks, CA I recall a peaceful rally being held on the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura Boulevards, two major cross streets in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It was not an unusual occurrence to see demonstrations there; however, it was unusual to find a demonstration of such type. They were a group of Assyrian Christians, striving to bring awareness to the genocide of their brethren and many other minorities in their homeland as a result of the recent conflicts in the Middle East. Although a diverse and heavily visited locale in the Los Angeles area, most employees and patrons were indifferent to the cause voiced by the group; unaware and even annoyed amidst the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. I however, was taken back to another time in my life. A time I had since separated from and strived to forget about.
It was early 2008 and the Iraq War had been dragging on for five years. My life had a completely different purpose and outlook then as I exited from the back of one of my platoons MRAP vehicles to carry out a common presence patrol on my second tour of duty in country. Mosul was considered the final stronghold for Al Qaeda within the occupied nation which had been devastated by years of warfare and strife. This neighborhood, however, was one I had yet to see or even know about despite already completing a full year combat deployment during 2005-2006. Continuing down the impoverished road, we moved calmly toward one of the city’s many Iraqi Army outposts known as COP Titanic when suddenly, children sprang from the neighborhood to greet us on all sides. This wasn’t uncommon for many areas we had patrolled in the past except for who these children were.
New to the area and alert as always, we maintained our bearing while being friendly to the locals. Children everywhere in Iraq knew American soldiers had plenty of goodies they could only dream about amidst their impoverished lives and to receive a simple pencil or candy bar was the equivalent of a new car to a teenager back home. So despite the rubble and sounds of skirmishes in the distance all seemed good so far as we proceeded. The entry control point to COP Titanic was near, landmarked by a massive religious structure pictured above which looked similar in design to a boat, probably giving the outpost its namesake. I had never seen a mosque like it and was soon to find out it wasn’t a mosque at all.
While observing my surroundings, I suddenly felt a small hand grasp my pinky finger. It was a young girl, probably four years old. I could barely make out what she said as she held my pinky, walking beside me while other children followed waving what appeared to be holy cards in their hands. To my surprise the cards were of Christian saints. I was confused since I had never seen such things in my prior knowledge and experiences here. I looked over and saw our medic take a photograph of me with the little girl and began enquiring as to who these people were. Looking around I could see mothers watching from the gates of their homes, anxious but smiling. Their heads weren’t covered as was common among Iraqi women and they seemed happy to see us. I believe we were all a bit confused as to the presence around us and began all wondering who these people were. They spoke Arab, they looked Arab, but something was obviously off.
After a brief interaction with the neighborhood and Iraqi Army command at the COP through our interpreters, we soon came to find they were Assyrian Christians, not Arabs; and that big, boat looking mosque nearby wasn’t a mosque at all, it was a church. I could easily understand why the neighborhood saw us as friends now.
It soon became a common task among many in our platoons area of operations to gather intelligence from the Kurdish Iraqi Army company at COP Titanic and provide a security presence and small gifts to the children and their families within that neighborhood. It was often a place we looked forward to given the peoples attitude toward us. Although I wasn’t a devout Christian, we somehow shared a commonality as both Americans and Assyrians, and the innocence and gratitude of the people and their children brought a seldom smile to our faces amidst the brutality of our mission in Mosul against Al Qaeda. However, despite our presence, the Assyrian Christian people among many minorities were in grave danger and suffered daily as a result of our enemy.
Shortly within our arrival to the area the city’s archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered by Al Qaeda gunmen within the city and his fate soon became that of many Christian families despite the efforts of us and our Kurdish allies. Even outside the COP Titanic neighborhood, we discovered many Christian families who had been living peacefully among their Muslim neighbors for centuries, only now to find violent and tragic fates at the hands of Al Qaeda and other militants. Churches were completely abandoned due to fear and many Christian men, women, and children were terrorized, driven out, and savagely murdered on a common basis. Often they would plead their fears and concerns to us while conducting reconnaissance patrols yet, there was only so much we could due to prevent such war crimes in a city of 2 million people despite the surge of American and Iraqi forces during the Mosul Offensive in 2008.
Our efforts, however, weren’t completely tarnished as US and Iraqi forces defeated Al Qaeda in the city and killed their primary leader, Abu Khalaf, on June 27, 2008. Unlike my first deployment in Balad, Iraq, where we left the area with no progress, continued fighting, and civil war among the populace; we could feel a sense of accomplishment in leaving the war-torn city in better hands than when we arrived. Al Qaeda was utterly annihilated and what remnants remained were completely backed against the wall. Still, it brought sadness to return to the Assyrian Christian neighborhood at COP Titanic, which was once lively and vibrant, only to become solemn and empty. We became so accustomed to the place we even had nicknames for the children who ran to greet us. The little girl who ran and held my pinky during our first visit to COP Titanic can be seen in the photo below with me that day. As time progressed we never saw her or her family anymore. I know not whether she is dead or alive.
Almost six years have passed since I came home from Mosul and today we find the Christian population, among many minorities to include Kurds and Yazidis, in an even worse situation than when my unit arrived in 2007. If anyone was our friend in the aftermath of the Iraq War, which ended on the 15th of March 2011, it was them. Yazidi, Kurdish, and Assyrian Christians risked their lives and those of their families daily while serving as interpreters; walking alongside us on the frontline. They served in their new nation’s army in the few Iraqi units we could rely upon and trust and their neighborhoods displayed constant gratitude and whatever possible support they could for our welfare and safety. Now that we have left, they are completely helpless to the bloodthirsty destruction and barbarism of ISIS who has systematically taken over the city.
According to Mark Arabo, an American businessman and Chaldean Christian leader who spoke to CNN, near 300,000 Christians are in Iraq fleeing in a desperate attempt to escape extermination from ISIS militants. “Christianity in Mosul is dead, and a Christian holocaust is in our midst," stated Arabo. “Each day is getting worse and worse. More children are being beheaded, mothers are being raped and killed, and fathers are being hung.”
CNN interviewer Jonathan Mann himself was surprised at Arabo’s words as would most of the American public, but to an Iraq veteran such statements hit right home with the reality we lived with in Mosul. “The world hasn't seen an evil like this for generations,” continued Arabo. “There's actually a park in Mosul where they actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick... this is crimes against humanity. They are doing the most horrendous, the most heart-breaking crimes that you can think of.”
Mann continues to question Arabo in regards to the ISIS letter to Mosul Christians to either convert, pay a fine, or be put to “death by the sword. “It's very clear they are killing people,” stated Mann. “But are Christians managing to escape by paying a fine?” Arabo responded: “The letter they did send out with those three items, they did ask to pay a fine but actually after paying the fine they are taking over their (Christians) wives and their daughters and making them into their (ISIS fighters) wives. So really, it’s convert or die.”
According to Catholic Online, a news and information center for Catholics, “The Islamic State has warned Christians, possibly for the last time, saying "there is nothing to give them but the sword." Across Northern Iraq, Christians are huddled in refugee camps, trapped in the desert, or trapped in their homes, waiting for death.”
Today, we can hear the pleas of so many innocent lives crying for help to the rest of the world as they did six years ago to my platoon among our many patrols throughout the ruins of Mosul. For over 2,000 years they have lived and worshipped there and in a matter of months been systematically uprooted and purged from their homeland, now facing complete and utter extinction. According to Fox News: “Assyrian Christians, including Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and followers of the Assyrian Church of the East have roots in present day Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran that stretch back to the time of Jesus Christ. While they have long been a minority and have faced persecution in the past, they had never been driven completely from their homes as has happened in Mosul under ISIS. When the terror group ordered all to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face execution, many chose another option: flight.”
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city aside from the capital, Baghdad. Upon the U.S. invasion in 2003, Ignatius Yousef Younan III, a patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church stated there were approximately 60,000 Christians living within Mosul. Following the war and our withdrawal from the city it had been cut in half to 35,000. In the wake of the ISIS invasion in June 2014 it stands tragically at zero. “Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the United Nations? Where is the American administration to protect peace and justice?" he asks. "Nobody has said a word.”
Unfortunately, many of us who are blessed to be born in a nation like the United States would rather continue on our daily business and pretend such atrocities aren’t happening to our brothers and sisters across the globe than face the tragic truth. We only care for what directly affects us in our day to day lives within the bountiful nation we reside. I myself have tried to forget the tragedies seen and heard during the Iraq War and focus on the future, however, the people I speak of weren’t complete strangers in some unknown foreign land. They were the few friends I had aside from my brothers in arms there. I may not be able to go back and protect those like the little girl and her family below, but I do have a voice. If there is one thing necessary it is to bring awareness to the world starting one person at a time.
So please, look above, and remember that innocent little girl and pass this on. Perhaps then the world will hear her. Perhaps then we can prevent a genocide in our time.
CNN. “ISIS Beheads Christian Children.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9JuMZ8spFQ. Youtube. 07 AUG 14. 09 AUG 14.
Catholic Online. “WARNING GRAPHIC, RAW PHOTOS — ISIS on Christians: ‘There is nothing to give them but the sword'” http://www.catholic.org/news/international/middle_east/story.php?id=56339. Catholic Online. 08 AUG 14. 09 AUG 14.
Fox News. “Purged by ISIS, Iraq’s Christians appeal to world for help.” http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/07/23/purged-by-isis-iraq-christians-appeal-to-world-for-help/. Fox News. 23 JUL 14. 09 AUG 14.
Special thanks to my brothers in arms, Gabriel Pittman and Steve Mead for the photos.