ISIS is firmly on the defensive in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, where U.S. and Iraq coalition forces are pushing forward in a pitched and bloody battle to retake the city. Though the terror group may be in retreat, one nearby town isn’t taking any chances.
On the outskirts of Mosul lies Al-Hamdaniya, a town almost destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Now a group of residents guard the ruins, patrolling the streets with the aim of keeping ISIS fighters out. This small band of men remain in the hope that their families and neighbors might one day safely return home.
When the militant group advanced throughout the region in August 2014, Christians who’d long called the area home, were forced to flee. The women and children left first, followed by the men who’d stayed behind hoping that ISIS wouldn’t invade.
“Four of my sons wanted to stay — they are all engineers. They said, ‘we’re going to stay because maybe ISIS will not come’,” says Behanan Aboush. He’s stationed at the headquarters of the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) in Al-Hamdaniya.
Aboush is the founder and leader of the NPU, a militia established in early 2015 by Assyrian Christians to guard against an ISIS offensive that swept across the Ninevah Plainswhere. ISIS soldiers killed at will and forcibly converted minorities to Islam, Aboush says. An estimated 100,000 Christians fled their homes.
Late one night that August, Aboush received information that the Islamist terror group was on its way, so he called his sons and told them to flee the town along with anyone else nearby.
“I saw the disaster that people were facing at that moment,” Aboush says. “When I saw all this, I started to think, ‘I have to do something to protect my people — and this area’.”
Some 50,000 people lived in Al-Hamdaniya, the largest Christian town in Iraq, but almost every single resident fled as ISIS advanced. When the fighters entered there were just 35 people still left, according to Aboush. He says most of them later managed to escape, but four people were killed during the occupation and another four remain missing.
A former soldier with the Iraqi air defense force, Aboush said he established a military force to protect Al-Hamdaniya and other Christian places in the wake of ISIS attacks. He started with just 15 soldiers, but now has around 500 men who’ve been trained by the Americans and armed by Iraqi forces.
“The NPU is a trial to keep our people safe. We are trying our best to protect our people and to help them. We saw what happened to the Yazidis and the big powers didn’t help them. We felt the pain of the Yazidis,” says Aboush.
The town was liberated on Oct 21 2016, more than two years after ISIS took control. When VICE News visited the town in May, nobody had yet been able to return to their homes. Much of the area was destroyed — some 75 percent of buildings were badly damaged – before the terror group retreated to Mosul. It will cost millions of dollars to rebuild, a reconstruction process that could take years to complete.
NPU fighters are paid $400 a month by the Iraqi government. They are ordinary men who once worked in factories and ran small businesses but who now patrol the locality with a license to kill.
Today, Al-Hamdaniya is a ghost town, eerily deserted, and the damage wreaked by ISIS is plain to see. Enacting a scorched earth policy ahead of retreat, the extremists wantonly vandalized the town, targeting almost every home. They also attacked and burned the ancient Syriac Catholic Church of Mar Behnam, desecrating its altar and destroying its bell tower.
There is black graffiti sprayed everywhere. ISIS marked Christian houses with the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N” to denote the derogatory term ‘Nazarene.’
The NPU have set up a look-out post armed with a heavy machine gun that was made in Russia — a ‘Dushka.’ About 90 meters away, there’s a huge trench that the NPU have dug around the periphery of the town for protection, in case the terror group returns.
“Our training lasted six months,” says Amar Yashuh who was a policeman in the town. His home was completely destroyed, as was the house of another soldier called Saddam, who says that his wife and four children are living in the Kurdish city of Erbil.
Houses once occupied by ISIS fighters remain standing, filled with blankets and sleeping bags. In one house, there’s a bottle of shampoo, a pair of denim shorts and an empty carton of Gauloise cigarettes. On the ground lies a mobile phone that’s been smashed; a dirty white vest hangs from a door.
Soldiers are unsure what the future holds for the NPU and town of Al-Hamdaniya. They just want a return to peace, but once Mosul is liberated from ISIS, Al-Hamdaniya will like face other challenges — tensions between the Kurds and Iraqis over disputed lands are sure to bubble up sooner than later.
Aboush is mindful of this encroaching issue, and says it should be for the people to decide.
“I would like people (the town’s residents) to have a vote on their future — whether they want to be part of Iraq or part of land controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government — and for people to respect that vote,” he says. “Most of all, we want to keep our security in our hands.”
Billy Briggs is an award winning freelance journalist who has reported for The Guardian, The Times, Al Jazeera, and the BBC. Angela Catlin is a freelance photographer with an interest in humanitarian and social issues. www.angelacatlin.com