Aid to the Church in Need and the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee have finished restoring the first 17 houses in the Christian village on the Nineveh Plain. The families who have returned home are saying, “Our life, our history is here. This is where we want to live.”
Erbil (Iraq), 01.08.2017 – In the villages on the Nineveh Plain that were occupied and looted from 2014 to 2015 by the so-called Islamic State (IS), the stench of burning is finally being replaced by the smell of fresh paint. In Bartella, the first Iraqi village on the Nineveh Plain to be freed from the clutches of IS, the first six heroic Christian Orthodox families have returned to their just restored homes after three years in exile in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Prior to IS occupation, which began on 6 August 2014 and ended with liberation on 20 October 2016, 3,400 families lived in Bartella. Two years of plundering and destruction through IS have left their mark. More than 94 dwellings of Orthodox and Syriac Catholic families were completely destroyed (bombed or blown to pieces), 364 fell prey to fire and 1,372 sustained at least slight damages. The NRC (Nineveh Reconstruction Committee), which is coordinated by Father Andrzej Halemba, the head of the Middle East section of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has already restored 17 dwellings and, now that the engineers have completed their cost estimates, another 150 are waiting for funding so that work can commence.
“In Bartella, the water network is slowly being brought into service again,” the young engineer Noor Sabah Dana, who is responsible for the rebuilding of houses at NRC, explained. “There is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs, and sometimes the network breaks down completely. There is a municipal water tank, which serves other villages as well and is filled on a weekly basis. Electricity is also coming back slowly. We are suffering from power failures, especially interruptions in the lines due to repairs.”
The municipal administration is trying to do its part as well: an excavator is working to repair the streets; a group of street cleaners is collecting the garbage from the streets.
These are small miracles for a village that bears the deep scars of jihadist occupation everywhere. Despite all of the difficulties, many Christian families who have spent the past few years in Erbil as internally displaced persons profess to being willing to return to the Nineveh Plain and to a normal life. “At least two hundred families come to Bartella from Erbil every day to clean their houses and make them habitable again,” Noor Sabah Dana continued. This is why so many garbage bags are lying out in front of the houses. “The families come here to clean their flats and clear them out, then they call us of the committee and ask us to appraise their homes and provide an estimate for the damages. Then restoration can commence.”
“After everything that happened, we returned to this house and asked the church in Bartella for help,” Mark Matti Ishaq Zora, the son of Matti, a local farmer and owner of the house, explained. “A team of experts came and appraised all that was necessary: the paintwork, the electrical installations, the doors and windows, the water pipes. This is our city, our life, our history. Besides, in Kurdistan we are living under poor economic conditions. Food and rent are expensive. That is why I would like to tell all the families from Bartella to come back here. There is water and electricity and the church is helping us. We thank Aid to the Church in Need for the help in restoring our house. It is really wonderful to be able to live here again.”
Several blocks further, the words of another home owner, Nohe Ishaq Sliman, clearly show that he is also deeply moved by the fact that he can once again look towards the future with hope. “We are all returning to Bartella because this is our city. I have lived here since I was a child,” Nohe Ishaq Sliman explained as a painter behind him worked on a wall of his house. “I drank the waters of the Tigris River and work here as a farmer. I built this house myself. How can I leave? I thank Aid to the Church in Need for the help in restoring my house. I could no longer pay 600-700 dollars a month for rent and leave this house standing empty. How could I not return? This is my city, I want to return and live here.”
The challenges facing Christians in the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 registered families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people), nearly 13.000 homes to be rebuilt, security concerns in the villages, Kurdish-Iraqi political maneuvering on the ground, infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics) and most importantly the transition period between the end of monthly rentals and food packages and the move of these families to the restored villages. Drawing from the most recent surveys updated by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee on July 14, 2017, 1228 families have already returned to Nineveh Plains and 423 properties are being renovated of which 157 have been restored through financial contributions by ACN.
Since the crisis began, Aid to the Church in Need has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, a total of 31 million euros has been donated for emergency aid including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.