It was the evening of Tuesday, June 10 when Salam Kihkhwa walked into a mobile phone shop in the Qaraqosh city center to purchase more minutes for his phone. Kihkhwa surfs the Internet for several hours each day and was carrying an iPhone 5s in his hand as he navigated his way past brackish puddles on the edge of the road. He set a few wrinkled dinar notes down on the counter to pay for a pack of Winchesters. Just at that moment, he recalls, he heard the scream: "The jihadists are in the city!"
Salam no longer remembers where the scream came from or whether it was a man or a woman. But he knows he left his cigarettes and money on the counter, grabbed his phone and made a run for it. Hundreds of others joined him, and the crowd kept swelling as it dashed through the streets of Qaraqosh.
"They're coming," the people fleeing yelled, warning others along the way. They ran into their houses -- and the bells of Qaraqosh's 12 churches began to ring.
Yet the day that the residents of Qaraqosh thought that the radical Islamist militia of terrorist Abu Bakr a-Baghdadi had entered the city turned out to be just one fear-filled day among many. And the situation this week appears to be worsening.
A week after his trip to the shop, Salam is sitting on a sofa in his small home, a wooden cross hanging on the wall behind him. His mother Sabria has set a meal of chicken and couscous on the table while his father Samir brings glasses of ice water. "God, we thank you for this meal," they say. "Please stand by us."
Salam, their only son, is 28 years old, and wears a lemon-colored t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and sunglasses to protect his eyes. Salam has suffered from poor vision since surviving a bombing attack in Mosul four years ago. Since then, he's had a lot of time on his hands. He only works occasionally -- sometimes at local gas stations, others on his computer at home. Otherwise he teaches himself different English accents, reads books about physics and energy production and, now and then, the Bible.
A Bastion of Catholic and Orthodox Christians
Salam and his parents are Catholic. Their hometown, Qaraqosh, is located some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Mosul in northern Iraq between craggy mountains and the Nineveh plains. Iraq is a culturally divided country, and it's in cities like Qaraqosh where this division is most evident. There are few places in the Middle East that are home to as many Christians as the population of 40,000 residing here. In Qaraqosh, they have established 12 churches that rise above the city like stone sentinels. They include names like Tahira, MarZena, Saint Behnam et Sara, and they count both Catholics and Orthodox Christians among their followers.
Each church looks different from the other, rising above the low-rise homes of this desolate city. Qaraqosh's roots go back to the biblical times of Mesopotamia, with history flowing between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Babylon, Ur and Nineveh, places that play a role in the Old Testament, are all located in modern-day Iraq, a cradle of civilization and once a place of creation. Today, however, the streets of Qaraqosh are filled with trash and a pungent smell in the air.
In these days of terror, which have shown Iraq's extreme fragility, one aspect of life in Qaraqosh has overshadowed all others: danger. Qaraqosh is home to an Iraqi minority that is disliked by Baghdadi's jihadists. "We shouldn't be living here any longer," says Salam.
Two weeks ago, radical Islamist ISIS militants seized control of Mosul and then proceeded to advance to within seven kilometers of the Christians. The people of Qaraqosh have been living in a state of fear ever since. The first invasion reports turned out to be exaggerated and the jihadists still haven't entered the city, despite heavy fighting on Wednesday. But the fear remains real. "For two days, my parents and I barricaded ourselves inside our home," Salam says. He peers out through the iron bars covering the windows overlooking a garden with six dried-out cucumber plants. There's not much else in sight.
'It's Dumb that We're Still Here'
He didn't see, for example, how 1,500 heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga fighters had come in from Erbil and taken positions at the edge of the city. Soldiers with the Iraqi army had only been stationed at forward posts near Qaraqosh which they abandoned after the fall of Mosul. For a time, Qaraqosh had been left completely defenseless. "We've felt a little bit safer since the Kurds got here," Salam's mother says. "But the very fact that they have to be here in the first place is scary for us."
Qaraqosh has simultaneously become a safe haven and a prison for locals. Around half the population had already fled to the Kurdish city of Erbil by last week, say those who have stayed. Many more left on Wednesday following battles between ISIS and the Peshmerga on the outskirts of town, according to news reports.
Of those who have stubbornly remained, Salam had this to say last week: "It's dumb that we're still here."
Salam spent his childhood in Baghdad and knew from an early age that he wanted an education. As Baghdad sank into chaos under Saddam Hussein, Salam read books about Albert Einstein at home and won competitions on questions about religion. For years, he longed to become a priest.
Later, when his family moved to Qaraqosh, Salam joined a Protestant sect and handed out Bibles to Muslims in Mosul, a potentially deadly provocation. He liked the idea of having a future as a clergyman. He though it would give him all the time in the world for learning. But his mother ultimately talked him out of the idea. "I want grandchildren," she says.
For several days now, a member of the Kurdish Peshmerga with broad shoulders and a loaded assault rifle has been standing guard near a window in front of Salam's home. Salam has been having trouble sleeping at night since the man arrived. He fears ISIS fighters will fire at the Kurd and, in the process, also strike his house.
The story of Qaraqosh is also the story of rearmament. Even though more than 800,000 of the 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq have fled the country over the past 20 years, Qaraqosh remained a bastion of stability.
On March 20, 2003, the day the Iraq war began with the bombardment of Baghdad, priests in Qaraqosh summoned their people and handed them wooden staffs they could use to defend their city. Over the years, they acquired arms, uniforms and training. Today, some 1,000 Christian fighters were already at the edge of the city when the Peshmerga arrived to help. The city's protective force is its most important employer. It's now the men's job to prevent the ISIS from burning down the churches, raping their women and shooting their children.
'We Have to Protect the Christians'
Qaraqosh is located between Mosul and the Kurdish city of Erbil, there are, of course, questions about the motives of the Kurds, who have deployed troops here. Are they acting purely for humanitarian reasons?
"The Christians are a peaceful people and they have lived here for a long time," says Qaraqosh security chief Mohammed, a Kurd and Muslim who receives his salary from the Kurdish autonomous government. He sits behind a desk near Salam's home and spins his pistol with his index finger. "No one has died in Qaraqosh since we got here," he says. "And no one will enter the city alive from the outside."
"We have to protect the Christians because we are stronger," he says. "It's our duty. Of course, they would also have advantages if they were part of Kurdistan. We have work, oil and water." One reason the Kurds are keen to serve as protectors to the Christians is that they want to expand their territory and found their own state. Qaraqosh is home to one mosque and around 100 Muslims. In order to prevent that population from growing, city authorities have banned Muslims from buying land or houses here.
'Iraq Is Disintegrating'
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.