Salam sits in front of his house on the stairs and searches for a word on his mobile phone. "Division, partition" appears on his screen. "Iraq is disintegrating," Salam says in English. "And we will lose -- regardless whether we belong to the Arabs or the Kurds in the end." When asked why he thinks that, he responds, "If we remain aligned with Baghdad, then nothing will change in Qaraqosh. There won't be any streets, work or hope." And what would happen if the city were to shift its allegiance to Kurdistan? "Then we might get streets, but in exchange we would slip into renewed conflict just as soon as the Iraqi army were to attempt to reconquer the oil city of Kirkuk from the Kurds."
Salam says he doesn't want to become a refugee. He loves this tough, dusty city in which the churches are the only things that are complete. He also knows that his elderly parents, who suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, would have a very difficult time fleeing. He's afraid because the images of the past keep reemerging -- ones of the burning buses that exploded in the city of Mosul in 2010, leaving 186 students dead or injured.
'ISIS Will Turn Our City into Hell'
Salam was one of them. He had been on his way to the university in Mosul where he studied electrical engineering. The bomb severely damaged his eyes, split his nose and lacerated his legs. Salam also knows the stories of other attacks on Christians in Iraq, particularly those against churches in Baghdad that have killed hundreds of people. "If the Peshmerga withdraw, Qaraqosh will be obliterated," he says. "The ISIS will turn our city into hell."
If you ask people in Qaraqosh if they would rather remain a part of Iraq or join a new Kurdistan, you often get a similar answer. "We want to be part of those who will protect us, give us freedom and love us," they say. "In other words: Kurdistan." Yohanna Petros Moshe, the archbishop of Mosul, who lives in Qaraqosh, recently wrote a letter to the prime minister of the Kurdish autonomous region thanking him for his help and for the Peshmerga fighters. "If we were to write a letter to Baghdad, we'd never get an answer," he says. "Only the Kurds express any interest in us. Perhaps it's because they were also oppressed."
After the meal, Salam plans to head over to the priests' seminary in the city center, where new Christian refugees arrive daily, bringing news from a paralyzed ghost town, where distrust prevails in all directions, guns are fired and men cover their eyes with their hands when women walk by without a headscarf. Here in the seminary, elderly men from Qaraqosh also sit in the shade under the trees discussing what they can do to defend their city. Young girls practice their songs for the upcoming Holy Communion.
As Salam enters into the seminary gate, the archbishop hurries over to him. He whispers into his ear because he doesn't want to spread panic. "ISIS representatives want to come to the city and visit me in two days," he says. They sent a messenger to deliver the news to him. The archbishop says he doesn't know how the terrorists intend to enter the city and whether it is even a good idea to talk to them. Salem says he doesn't know either. Nor does he know if the message is even real.
Adorned in his cassock, the archbishop takes a seat in a plastic chair. Men step up to kiss his ring. The archbishop has become the most important man in the city and it is he who is holding the community together. In his garden, he discusses water, electricity and the Internet with representatives of the church and the city -- all things that have been missing for days in Qaraqosh. Residents say the ISIS troops have cut water pipes and power lines in order to wear them down, and that's only the beginning.
In addition, the Iraqi central government in Baghdad has cut off Internet access in the region surrounding Mosul in order to prevent the terrorists from using it to further their propaganda. People say the "terrorists are already in the city, at least indirectly." "Fortunately we haven't seen them yet. Alhamdulillah - thanks and praise to god," locals say. It's now 4 p.m. and mass will begin at all churches in the city in another 30 minutes.
The bells announcing the afternoon services can be heard across the city. The Saint Jean church is a solid-brick building, ochre yellow like the desert and guarded by 10 volunteers from Qaraqosh carrying Kalashnikovs. Hundreds of people stream into the church, which smells of incense inside. Men beat kettle drums and cymbals, the congregation begins to sing and pray to counter the fear.
'The Terrorists Want To Destroy Us'
"You know what is happening around us," the archbishop intones in a booming voice, speaking Arabic. He stands at the pulpit holding the silver cross around his neck firmly in his hand. "The terrorists want to destroy us. We have to remain strong. Don't panic. We will be protected, but we also have to protect ourselves."
He stretches out his upward-facing palms. "Our values are love and peace. Let us rise up and pray together," he says. "Forgive us for our sins just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us."
The people of Qaraqosh have always placed their lives in the hands of God. They're used to seeing bombs explode in their country. They know that people of other confessions would like to kill them. Still, the danger feels more present this time than ever before. They don't know what's in store for them and many fear a massacre. They are hoping for conciliation but are at the same time planning their escape.
Salam has taken a seat towards the rear of the church, bathed in the glow of the afternoon light as it flows through the colorful stained-glass. A smart, confident man with a light beard, he is also a dreamer -- a fan of Russell Crowe who would one day like to live in Melbourne. Instead, he has only rarely left his city and can recall every journey -- to the doctor or taking friends to the airport.
Salam also stands up to pray -- and begins to cry. Then, before the mass ends, he leaves the church, stepping outside into the streets of Qaraqosh. His city.