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The small northern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, with a population of 60,000, 99% of whom are Catholic, woke up nine years ago on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, to the sound of indiscriminate mortar shells that fell on houses. Three people were killed: 32-year-old Inaam Ishua Boulis, 5-year-old David Adeeb Elias Shmeis, and 9-year-old Milad Mazen Elias Shmeis.

The fall of Mosul, the center of the Nineveh Governorate and the second largest city in Iraq, occurred roughly two months earlier, on Jun. 10, 2014, after the terrorist organization ISIS swept through the town. By Aug. 6, ISIS would reach the town of Qaraqosh, 20 miles southeast of Mosul. 

Given the deadline of July 19, 2014, Christians had to choose between converting to Islam or the covenant of dhimma, a tax paid by non-Christians in exchange for a small amount of protection under Sharia law, or they were forced to leave the city, and if they refused to face the sword. 

As a result, nearly all Christians fled the city and began journeying for safety through the Nineveh Plain, creating a ripple of fear and anticipation throughout the villages and towns of the plain as they fled.

Qaraqosh attacked

When the shelling began, 5-year-old David Shmeis died instantly. According to his mother, Duha Sabah Abdullah, his body parts were so scattered that they only found parts of his head and legs. His 9-year-old cousin Milad was also among the victims who died in the blast. 

The shelling did not stop that day, as eyewitness Nimrod Qasha explained, adding that after the funeral and burial ceremonies for the dead ended, the movement of displacement began. Qasha and many others believed that similar to events on June 26, when inhabitants fled and returned a few days later, the city would evacuate and return after a short time. 

Abdullah confirmed that the sounds of shelling did not stop during the burial ceremonies. Disrupted by a midnight warning call from a friend of her husband in Mosul, Abdullah was warned that ISIS was close to storming Qaraqosh. Abdullah and her family left after hanging up the phone. Those that fled Mosul had already shared news of the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yazidis when it invaded Sinjar and the area on Aug. 3. The US and others would ultimately declare what happened to the Yazidis to be genocide. 

The memorial card featuring David Abdullah, a child killed by ISIS in 2014 in Qaraqosh, and his mother Duha Abdullah speaking to Pope Francis March, 2021. Photo credit: Raghed Ninwaya/ACI MENA
The memorial card featuring David Abdullah, a child killed by ISIS in 2014 in Qaraqosh, and his mother Duha Abdullah speaking to Pope Francis March, 2021. Photo: Raghed Ninwaya/ACI MENA

The Fall of Qaraqosh

“On the morning of Aug. 7, there was no longer room for doubt that Qaraqosh, Karamlis, and Bartella had all fallen into the hands of ISIS,” Qasha confirmed, adding that the sounds of bullets that accompanied the advance of terrorist elements were deafening.

With the early hours of dawn came news of the infiltration of ISIS fighters into the town’s fields and the withdrawal of the military units assigned to protect it, according to Qasha. The main street leading to Erbil was crowded with displaced people. No vehicles were available to transport the town’s 60,000 residents. 

Only some infirm and elderly remained in Qaraqosh because they could not leave.

Abdullah could not describe her feelings as she left her town, leaving her son’s grave right after she buried him: “My eyes did not stop shedding tears on the roads to Erbil, and black thoughts were thrown at me, and I was afraid that they would exhume or desecrate the grave,” she said.

Qasha explained that the roads leading to Erbil and Dohuk, larger cities with Christian strongholds inside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, were filled with crowds. Tens of thousands of Christians fleeing Christian villages and towns waited for hours to cross the Kurdistan Region’s checkpoints in search of safety in Erbil.

By ACI MENA, Georgena Hababba

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