It is the silence that you notice first. Not just a lack of noise but an absence of sounds. Even the birds have left. I am in Telskuf, Iraq, about 32 kilometers north of the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold of Mosul and two kilometers from the front line. The town is abandoned; its inhabitants including approximately 12 thousand Christians fled the advance of ISIS militias during the night of August 6, 2014 finding refuge in the nearby city of Alqosh or in the Kurdish capital Erbil.
At 43 degrees we press against the shadow of abandoned shells: houses with gaping mouths, pockmarked walls fronted by the husks of blackened cars betraying the brutality which took place a few weeks prior. On May 3, 2016 hundreds of ISIS fighters, multiple car bombs and suicide bombers broke through Kurdish lines before a counterattack supported by U.S. airstrikes turned ISIS back. Casualties included three Kurdish fighters and a 31 year old US Special Forces soldier. According to unconfirmed reports by Peshmerga soldiers, over 50 ISIS soldiers were killed. They were photographed and bulldozed into a roadside grave. The earth is still fresh.
I walk with a delegation from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). We have come in a visit of solidarity to the Christian town of Alqosh. Roughly 16 kilometers from Telskuf, Alqosh is last major Christian city on the Plain of Nineveh in what once was a valley full of Christian villages since occupied and destroyed by ISIS. Here the Chaldean Catholic Bishop Mikha Pola Maqdassi has organized support for the over 500 displaced families in addition to the village’s existing 1200 families. All seek work where there is none. The Catholic Church is the main provider of social care and, above all, hope. As Bishop Maqdassi explains, the youth are discouraged, finding themselves in a world that is wasted.
We make our way to Telskuf’s Catholic Church. Again the silence is broken only by the glass underfoot. The Church has been looted and destroyed. The statue of the Virgin Mary has been desecrated, the head cut from her body; the symbol of beheading the signature of ISIS. The Peshmerga soldiers with reflective sunglasses and guns cradled take positions at vantage points: the dome, broken windows, the bell tower to assure our security. We kneel to pray in what was the choir loft. Led by Fr Andrew Halemba, responsible for ACN’s Middle East projects, we pray the Lord’s Prayer for peace, our normally easy and cheerful group shocked and silenced. A Christian general, a generous man with graying temples waits respectfully and when finished implores that we join him for a meal. Although time doesn’t allow he tells us he fights ISIS so that those who live in the remaining Christian villages in the region may be protected. We walk back through overturned streets. I wonder when the birds will come back.