When Christian villagers from the Iraqi town of Caramles fled advancing IS forces, 80-year-old Victoria was among a dozen or so unable to leave. The widow, a Chaldean Catholic, knew nothing about the sudden evacuation that had suddenly emptied this ancient village she had known for so long. Next morning she went to church – St Addai’s – as she did every day. She found the place locked; the streets deserted. She knew IS had come.
We met Victoria on our first evening in Erbil at the start of a fact-finding and project assessment trip. She wanted to tell us the story of how she and her friend and neighbour Gazella survived.
For four days, they locked themselves in their home, not daring to venture out. “Prayer sustained us,” said Victoria. But they needed food for the body as well as food for the soul and when supplies ran dangerously low they went in search of water and other basics.
Inevitably they ran into IS forces. Explaining their situation, they asked for help and to their surprise IS gave them water even after they refused a request to abandon their faith.
A few days later, IS found them in their homes and rounded them up at St Barbara’s shrine just on the edge of Caramles. There were about a dozen of them there, the last remaining Christian inhabitants of the village.
“You must convert,” IS forces told them. “Our faith can promise you paradise,” they added.
Victoria and Gazella responded: “We believe that if we show love and kindness, forgiveness and mercy we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth as well as in heaven. Paradise is about love. If you want to kill us for our faith then we are prepared to die here and now.”
IS forces had no answer. The dozen Christians, who included many elderly and infirm, were let go. One of them had a battered car. Other transport was also arranged and they made it to safety.
Victoria and Gazelle are still neighbours. But they no longer live in two homes side by side but two mattesses in a room they rent courtesy of the Church in Ainkawa, near Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq.
There on the mattresses they told their story. Completing it, Victoria had tears in her eyes. ‘Ebony’, she said, reaching out her arms to me. After we embraced, her bishop, Amel Nona of Mosul, himself a refugee too, told me that ‘Ebony” is Arabic for “my child”. I went away thinking that I was indeed a child sitting at the feet of women of great fortitude, faith and friendship.