NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is the fifth of April, 2018.
Thanks for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. ISIS no longer controls towns and cities in Iraq as it once did. Recovering from that control is now underway.
EICHER: That’s the sound of rebuilding in the town of Qaraqosh left in ruins by ISIS in Iraq. It’s the sound of hope, of a future, for Christians who have lived on these Nineveh Plains for centuries. When ISIS brutalized the area with its takeover in 2014, tens of thousands fled for their lives as ISIS torched their homes and left their houses of worship in ashes.
REICHARD: Iraqi and U.S. forces liberated the area in 2016. An arduous rebuilding process is going on now, work that must be carried out within a still-fragile peace.
WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz is back from a recent trip to Iraq. She’s here to bring us up to date on the latest rebuilding efforts.
Tell us what you saw this time and how it compares to your time in these same towns just a year ago?
MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: What I saw was a lot of work, a lot of noise, a lot of signs of a city that’s trying to come back. Qaraqosh was a city of 60,000 people before ISIS ran everyone out in 2014. And some of the most horrific things that the atrocities that we heard about from ISIS happened here. And when I visited 3 months after the liberation in 2016, you could still smell the decaying flesh, the burnt metal, you could see some of the oil fires. I walked through a bomb lab that ISIS had in the basement of a church and the place was a ghost town. One year later, it could not be more different. The streets were full of scooters and motorcycles and tractors. People carrying away debris. People hauling in supplies. Jackhammers and power drills of people repairing their homes. And just even the color. The town was dust and ash a year ago and now it’s colorful as people put signs out on the sidewalks and produce stands are full of fruits and vegetables and women and children and men are walking up and down the streets cleaning the sidewalks. It’s a remarkable comeback.
It’s understandable that people would want to return to their homes and rebuild. But given the extent of the damage, what do you see as unique about this particular effort to rebuild?
BELZ: What’s remarkable is that these towns in Nineveh plain, which was a majority Christian area up until the time of ISIS… The rebuilding is happening completely as a church-led effort. It is a volunteer effort that is happening without government organization, without government funding.
So the Iraqi government and UN funds that have been put toward rebuilding up until this point have all gone into Muslim areas that were also destroyed by ISIS, but not to these cities and towns like Qaraqosh. The UN has put a little bit of effort into rebuilding and reopening schools in this area, but that’s it. And so, and I should say that the U.S. has pledged last year $35 million to rebuilding non-Muslim areas. But so far, the U.S. as of just a few weeks ago held a workshop to discuss how that money might be spent.
So the progress that’s being made is carried out privately?
BELZ: That’s right, Father George Jahola, a Catholic priest from Qaraqosh has overseen the reconstruction efforts. They have taken on more than 2,600 homes in the last six months. More than 1,200 of them are complete and families are returning. Many of them have moved back into those homes, are living in them. Some of them are still carrying on work downstairs while they live upstairs. It’s just remarkable. Listen to him describe how this effort began. And you’ll have to listen carefully because he does have an accent.
JAHOLA: It was the idea of the community, and the volunteers, and me too, and it was difficult, because we start from zero…step by step with discussions, with the community, the engineers now we have good steps and good work…”
He says they started from zero. So pure determination and volunteer work are key ingredients in this rebuilding. What is the context within which these people must work?
BELZ: Without having a larger rebuilding strategy and a government-led effort, what you have are cities and towns that still have not been returned to the electric grid, so they do not have power except where they have been tied back in via generators. There is no running water in most of these places. These are things that ISIS cut when they moved in and took over. And, really importantly, there’s no overall plan for security. What’s really disturbing and I think makes all of this a very fragile effort is that the Iraqi government has put the Iranian-backed PMUs – popular mobilization units – in charge of this area. So you’ve got a Shiite-led militia that includes some Iranians overseeing the security in a region that does not have a Shiite population, has a mostly Christian population and is not an area that Iran should have an interest in. This is what worries people and it makes them really unsure if long-term they’re going to be able to reestablish their communities.
And so looking ahead, Mindy, what are the prospects for these communities? Will people be able to stay in their homes and build a new life again?
BELZ: I hope so. We have a real responsibility to encourage the U.S. government to put forward the money that has been committed by the Trump administration. And to see that it’s used well. And you know what I’ve observed in the years of covering this Christian community while they’ve been displaced, while they’ve been under threat is that the community itself is growing and changing. For instance, in Qaraqosh they’re going to be planting an evangelical church that is composed of some new believers and some believers who are coming out of some of the older Chaldean and Assyrian and other Syriac churches. And so that should give us hope that God is really working in this part of the world and really working through what has been a really tragic situation.
You can read Mindy’s piece about this massive rebuilding effort in the April 14th issue of WORLD Magazine. And you can follow her on Twitter at @mcbelz. Mindy, thanks for this report!
BELZ: Thanks, Mary.
(Photo/Mindy Belz) Bartella’s main shopping street in Feb. 2017 (left) and March 2018 (right).