Cover Story

Binding up the wounds of war

"Binding up the wounds of war" Continued...

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

At lunch in a restaurant with Akram and Sarab, a traditionally dressed Kurdish family sits to their right, while to their left sits a Western-dressed local government official talking business with Japanese investors. In the streets burqa-clad women brush shoulders with women in short skirts and heels, while men are apparently too busy hustling everything from pomegranates to refrigerators to notice the changes.

Landing here for the Almoshmos family has been easier than for many displaced. Thanks to a Kurdish business associate in Baghdad, Akram found a job as a local television set distributor. He is able to employ his now-handicapped former shop assistant. Sarab works for the Kurdish Heritage Institute. The Chaldean church here helped the family find a one-bedroom flat (for the family of six) and they live with borrowed furniture. Through the church they've encountered dozens of families without work or decent housing and are helping to assist them with monthly food baskets. But on Sept. 6, Sarab learned from a Baghdad neighbor that her mother had died, alone and separated by the violence.

City life for some is not solace enough. The village of Bereka is nearly as far from Baghdad as you can get without leaving Iraq-350 miles away from the capital high in the mountains near the Turkish border. And that's how far away Bihnan Rehana wants to be. Rehana was a resident of Baghdad's Dora district, historically a mostly Christian neighborhood, until terrorist groups emptied it door-to-door over the last 12 months. Earlier this year terrorists firebombed the Assyrian St. George's Church and removed its cross.

Rehana lived in Dora since 1975. He ran a street market, a good business that allowed him to support his wife and five children and to afford one of the district's larger houses. Then threats began: "I was approached by terrorist groups and asked how many children I had. When I told them five, they said, 'Fine, three for you and two for us.' They wanted us to pay $10,000 a month as a kind of tax for staying in Dora, or they would take my children."

Such threats follow a pattern described by many displaced Christians whom WORLD visited across five northern provinces. Usually black-masked militants threaten residents face-to-face or issue letters by night demanding that they convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant fee, or be killed. "To be safe, be Muslim," is their slogan.

One day the insurgents shot at Rehana's car to show him they were serious. Today he keeps the pockmarked sedan parked outside his new home in Bereka, the village of his forefathers. When he left Baghdad, he said, he left everything except the car and the clothes on his back. His youngest children are with relatives in Syria. His oldest son remains in Baghdad.

Rehana knows many Christians who have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria. But like many WORLD spoke to, he believes that Baghdad one day will be livable again, and that the better choice is to stay. Judging by the four cities, two smaller towns, and eight villages WORLD visited across five northern Iraq provinces, he may be right. From the remote and mountainous border in the north to the hazy, hot, and brittle pastureland of Nineveh Plain, it's possible for an American to travel without personal protection, a government minder, or U.S. military escort, without a ceramic-plated vest or a headscarf. Christians and religious minorities in particular say they are welcomed at northern checkpoints, though Kurdish forces are notoriously hard on outsiders and reject most cars with Baghdad license plates.

Surprisingly, Kurdish officials in the north-underwritten by oil revenues and U.S. reconstruction aid-are taking the first steps to rebuild dozens of Assyrian Christian and Chaldean villages. Kurdish regional government (KRG) minister of finance Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu has made it a priority to fund housing and schools in these villages even ahead of Kurdish Muslim villages that were destroyed under Saddam Hussein.

In Bereka the KRG has built 25 concrete slab homes for 25 families from Baghdad. It also constructed a school and a church. In the far northern district of Dohuk, the Kurdish regional government has built 1,400 houses, 12 schools, and 13 churches in the last 18 months. (That's right, a majority Muslim government is building churches for displaced Christians.)

The evidence contrasts with recent reports, including a 2007 report filed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), claiming Kurdish treatment of Assyrians in northern Iraq includes "religiously motivated discrimination," confiscation of property, and denial of "key social benefits, including employment and housing."

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