Cover Story
Sarab (left) and Akram

Binding up the wounds of war

Targeted Christians and other religious minorities find shelter-for now-in Iraq's northern provinces

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq- When Yousif Almashmos was born in March 2003, coalition bombs were falling outside. His family's Baghdad apartment swayed as his mother made her way to the hospital. Akram and Sarab Almashmos lived near headquarters for Saddam Hussein's security services, a prominent target for U.S. forces. Worse, Saddam had positioned rocket launchers between houses in the area, making them a target for U.S. heat-seekers.

Some neighbors died in those early days of the U.S. invasion, and when her baby was born, Sarab asked God, "Why are you protecting me? What is our purpose?" Holding her infant in her arms eight months later, she told WORLD she read her Bible that night and decided to name her fourth child Yousif, after the ancient patriarch Joseph, "because he is not here by accident. God has something for us."

Now Yousif is a rambunctious boy of four with a dark brown cowlick. He likes to drink other people's soda when his is gone and he hops around the room eating off the plates of his older sisters or brother. He cries when his father refuses to take him on errands. This month he starts school, having never known a day in his life without war.

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Four years ago his parents made friends with U.S. soldiers patrolling their district, and Sarab said then that she believed they "are coming to make the area safer, not to fight." But safer was not to be. Militants repeatedly threatened her husband's cosmetics business, and they began to feel that the family was targeted because they are Chaldean Catholics. Early last year a car bomb exploded on the street near his business. Then came Aug. 31, 2006.

That day at least three car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in the district. Within 30 minutes, 64 Iraqis were dead and nearly 300 wounded. The force of the explosions rocketed Almashmos' shop assistant 40 feet into the air and completely leveled the store. The assistant survived but lost one leg.

Two weeks later on Sept. 15, 2006, Akram and Sarab packed their four children and some clothes into their car and left Baghdad. On Sept. 4, 2007, WORLD caught up with them 200 miles away in Sulaymaniyah, once an ancient Kurdish capital in northern Iraq, now bulging at an estimated 1 million residents or more, thanks to the dangers wrought by Shiite and Sunni militias and terrorists in cities to the south. Across the region cities and villages are filling with families like the Almoshmoses-families who are traumatized, dislocated, and working to reconstruct their lives against an uncertain future.

This month's report to Congress by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, along with a Sept. 13 speech by President Bush, spelled a shift in strategy-a once open-ended commitment to war in Iraq now has fixed parameters and a calendar pegging limited troop withdrawals to measurable success. But for Iraqis the debate is less political than visceral-less about long-range timetables and overall strategy and more about daily survival-how to eat, to work, and to protect one's family. Approaching the war's five-year mark, how does a prostrate nation bind up the wounds of war?

For Iraq's religious minorities the question is particularly vital, as those groups have been targeted by terrorists and have the most to fear from an Iraq hijacked by Islamic militants. The annual growth rate among Christians in Iraq has dropped from approximately 3 percent in 1950 to -1 percent today.

For Akram and Sarab, answering that question meant coming north, even if it meant leaving everything behind, including Sarab's ailing mother. Sulaymaniyah in the last 18 months has become home to thousands of displaced people like them, religious minorities who face threats from Islamic extremists. Across the three northern provinces known as Kurdistan, an estimated 30,000-50,000 Christians are taking refuge. In contrast to some reports in the United States, they say they are finding a haven not only from violence but from persecution. This month Kurdish officials gave a tentative go-ahead for a new evangelical church in Sulaymaniyah to serve the displaced from Baghdad, according to pastor Ghassan Thomas, and the government currently is backing the construction of more than 40 churches in the region.

Sulaymaniyah is home to Iraq's current president, Jalal Talabani, and sits among high desert hills at about 2,500 feet above sea level. It once boasted having Tucson as its sister city. Now it boasts overcrowded streets, construction cranes across the skyline, and a multi-ethnic, multi-religious revival in what until the war was largely a Kurdish enclave. The north has a tax- and duty-free policy on investments-prompting business interests driven out of Baghdad, as well as Turkish and Asian interests, to buy into development here.


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