Islamic State militants have dealt a final blow to Iraq's displaced Christian population by burning thousands of homes before surrendering the occupied territories.
As more than two years of occupation comes to an end, ISIS forces have systematically set fire to homes in the Nineveh Plain before leaving, World Watch Monitor reports. Many had long hoped for an eventual return home, but even with ISIS forces gone, the destruction has dealt a blow to their dreams.
"This is it. Everything else is gone," said one man, who was only able to salvage to some books, shoes, and photos from his house in Bartella, a recently liberated Christian town.
His family were forced to flee after ISIS invasion in summer 2014, but they had remained in Ashti refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the hope of one day returning home. Liberation of some towns in the Nineveh Plain in October had raised such hopes for many families. Now though, this man's home has been destroyed, and the dream with it.
"Everything is gone. We have nothing left. Why should we stay in this country any longer?" he says. "We have lost all hope. Is there any country willing to take us in? Please, tell me which one; we will be on the next plane out of here."
In Christian settlements like Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karamles, about 80 per cent of the houses have been either completely destroyed by Coalition bombs or burned out and rendered uninhabitable by ISIS. One volunteer assessed the damage in Qaraqosh: "In most houses, all the rooms have been burned out completely," he said. "Except, strangely enough, the kitchens. It is clear this has been an organised strategy."
Father Thabet, a priest from Karamles, said the destruction in some cases was done only hours before ISIS forces left. "It seems they wanted to make sure nothing of value would remain," he said. "The effect is a mounting feeling of hopelessness among the Christians when they discover the damage. They will really need time to recover from this news, to adjust to the new perspective of living in displacement longer than they might have expected."
The devastation has clearly wreaked more than just physical damage. "People have the feeling that their history has been erased," he says. "They feel emotionally displaced because of this."
Thabet still has hope of restoration and work with the help of volunteers has begun. Christian charity Open Doors is supporting the opening of the first Centre for Support and Encouragement, which will facilitate the return of those who have been displaced and feel ready to return.
However, the road ahead will be long. "There is no electricity, no water, nothing. Do you know how difficult it is to start cleaning without water available? This process is going to take longer than some people have expected," he says. ISIS has not been wiped out either and violence still surrounds the liberated territories. Thabet says: "The whole international community has to come up with a solution for the Christians here."
He adds: "We have to prepare for a long time of reconstruction. Yet, I firmly believe this is Christian ground, and I will work hard to help the Christians return to this place – God willing, to live here in peace."