Christmas Returns to a City Liberated From ISIS

By David Gonzalez

For more than two years, 300 militia fighters waited to retake from the Islamic State the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, the country’s largest Christian enclave. Then, in October of last year, the photographer Quentin Bruno accompanied these civilians turned soldiers as they approached the city that was once home to 50,000 people. He remembered their excitement, as well as the mortars that rained down upon them, a few days after the Iraqi Army had launched the Battle of Mosul.

Hope and excitement turned to surprise as they went into town and arrived at the ruins of a church. “When we entered, nothing exploded,” Mr. Bruno explained. “Everybody was expecting booby traps everywhere.”

Some of the men lit candles, Mr. Bruno recalled, until a sniper took aim and forced them to flee to another church. Once there, he said, a poet and writer named Jamil made a cross from two pieces of wood and hoisted it aloft.

Residents construct a large cross at the entrance of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, as the city rebuilds after being overrun by Islamic State militants.

Mr. Bruno, a freelance photographer based in Belgium, spent a year in the region, first with the members of the Christian militia during the offensive and later visiting regularly to document how the city was recovering from a conflict that drove out its inhabitants and destroyed about a third of the city. He began by moving to Erbil, where he got to know the militiamen. He found them easy to talk to, he said, unlike the regular Iraqi military.

“They were civilians who had taken up guns to take back their city,” Mr. Bruno said. “The way they spoke was more human than the military. They were poets and bakers. You could feel they were not Rambos. They were full of hope. I thought it was a great story.”

Whatever exhilaration they felt upon their return, he said, was tempered by the reality of rebuilding what had become a ghost town. They were depressed, he said, and coldA family celebrating at a Christmas party organized for children in Qaraqosh.

“They were unsure if the people would come back to the city and if there would be life again,” he said. “It was hard because all these guys came back to find most of their houses had been burned. So I took them, one by one, to their houses to take pictures. Some of them cried when they got there. Others were desperate. No one knew if families would go back.”

Slowly, people returned. By last August, he said, some 25,000 people had come back, in time to have the children return to school. Shops were opening and construction was going on everywhere. And religious life also returned, though with some accommodations: During one religious feast in September (Slide 1), Mass was celebrated outside the church, rather than in the sanctuary, since the structure had to be reconsecrated for use.

As for the rest of the city, he said, many houses were rebuilt by families who returned.Sunday mass inside the main church in Qaraqosh, which had been burned by the Islamic State in 2016.

“There are kids everywhere now,” he said. “There are internet cafes and restaurants. There is still a lot of construction, but you can feel there is life. You can feel the people found hope again.”

And so, perhaps it is time to celebrate and give thanks. Mr. Bruno said this Christmas will be the first time that the main church will once again be filled with civilians who have returned to their liberated city.

“They have a crèche ready,” he said. “There will be a choir. They are ready for Christmas.”


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