Assyrian Christians who were forced to flee their homes by Islamic State are now back in Iraq, defending the very town they were made to run from in terror – Qaraqosh.
"This is the land of our fathers, we have to defend it," Mubarak Tuwaya told the Wall Street Journal.
Captain Tuwayo is one of the approximately 500 troops and 300 unpaid volunteers who make up the militia known as the Ninevah Plain Protection Units (NPU). The NPU is now largely responsible for holding Hamandiya, a district east of Mosul and home to Qaraqosh. The NPU helped the Iraqi army retake Hamadiya from ISIS in October. The majority of the militiamen are Christians from the region, many of whom were amongst the 150,000 forced to flee their homes in 2014 when ISIS made its charge through northern Iraq.
In the autumn of that year, some of the displaced Christians decided to form the militia after feeling that Iraqi and Kurdish troops had abandoned them during ISIS's advance. The members speak a modern version of Jesus' language – Aramaic. They now report to and are paid by the government.
While the NPU's capabilities are limited, their member's methods can be brutal. One young member shared with a news source how he had beheaded an ISIS fighter with his pocketknife. He then went on to show a picture of the militant's head on his phone.
As well as protecting the area, the NPU are on a mission to convince their fellow Christians that it is safe to return. Qaraqosh, which was once Iraq's largest Christian town and home to 40,000 people, is now a ghost town. The empty streets are scarred with depictions of the ISIS flag, and churches have been destroyed from the inside out.
The drastic decline in the number of Christians in Qaraqosh and across Iraq follows years of steady decline in the country. Since 2003, the Christian population in Iraq has dropped by around half – from one million to roughly half a million people today.
But the formation of the NPU shows that Christians are not willing to give up on their country and their home that easily. "It's a turning point in our history: to be or not to be in our homeland," said Yunadim Kanna, a Christian member of parliament in Baghdad.
It seems, for the NPU at least, Christians have decided to be.