( The Guardian ) The church ceiling was still scorched and some cherished relics missing, but after five years of war and exile, their tormentors were finally gone.
When the men and women of Iraq’s oldest Christian town gathered for Easter mass this weekend, they did so knowing that ISIS extremists who had chased them away were not coming back. Their battlefield defeat two months ago meant the people of Hamdaniya (also called Qaraqosh) could once again celebrate without fear.
A large congregation shuffled into pews that only two years ago lay in splintered ruin, both in the Church of the Immaculate Conception and every other church in Hamdaniya, which, like much of the rest of northern Iraq, had been overrun by extremists from Isis.
A priest in bright red robes holding a gold crosier in one hand and a small cross in the other spoke in Syriac only blocks away from where militants plotted chaos and even genocide for vulnerable communities.
In the darkest years of insurgency, from mid-2014 until late 2016, Hamdaniya and nearby towns had been hotbeds of the Isis presence; bases from which the militant group had planned attacks, assembled bombs and pledged to lay waste to millennia of coexistence. For a while, it seemed that those who had left would never return.
Now, with Isis stripped of its last redoubt of lands, on battlegrounds not far away, and its leadership scattered or killed, Hamdaniya is resurgent, its bustling streets and rebuilt homes a rebuff to fears that the ancient plains of Nineveh could never again be home to a minority who had lived there since the earliest years of civilisation.
Desolate and abandoned in the months after Isis was forced out of town from late 2016, Hamdaniya’s recovery was painstaking. The town’s entire population fled to other parts of Iraq, almost all to the Ainkawa neighbourhood of the Kurdish city of Erbil. There the community was sheltered by Kurdish leaders, who spearheaded the fight against an enemy who had also threatened Kurds, Turkmen, Shias, Shabak and every other minority group who did not bow to its will.
Slowly though, over the past two years, residents have trickled back across the makeshift border into Arab Iraq and what remained of their homes. Local priest Ammar Yaku, 40, said that of Hamdaniya’s pre-Isis population of 80,000, an estimated 25,650 had returned, while about 40% of residents had emigrated, a large number of them to Australia.
“My son is there,” said Yacoub Hanna, a local man standing in a church courtyard. “They are safe, they have schools for the children and they live the life of exiles. Their bodies are there, but their spirits are here.”