'This is our village': How local Christians and a Catholic charity are rebuilding an Iraqi community brick by brick

Aid to the Church in Need

Iraqi Christians returning to a historically Christian village in their country, Bartella on the Nineveh Plains, have described rebuilding their community in interviews with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported by the website Zenit.

Bartella was the first of the region's communities to be liberated from the grip of ISIS, last autumn. It was home to 3,400 Christian families before Islamic State captured the community in 2014. Now, after three years of exile in Kurdistan, the first six Syriac-Orthodox families have returned to their newly restored homes.

More than 90 homes had been completely destroyed by ISIS, with some 360 badly damaged by fire and another 1300 homes suffering varying degrees of damage, ACN reported. The charity has restored 17 homes in the village, with another 150 homes due to be worked on once funding has been secured.

Meanwhile, the village's infrastructure needs repair. In a sign of hope, 'the water network is slowly being brought into service again', Noor Sabah Dana, a local engineer, told ACN. He added: '[There] is not enough water to meet everyone's needs, and sometimes the network breaks down completely. There is a municipal water tank, which serves other villages as well and. Electricity is also coming back slowly, though there are regular power failures, especially interruptions caused by the repair work.'

Rubbish and other debris is finally being collected from the streets, while the municipal administration is repairing the streets.

ACN found that many of the community's former residents, having spent three years as Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan, are eager to return home. 'At least 200 families come to Bartella from Erbil every day to clean their houses and try make them habitable again,' Noor Sabah Dana said. 'The families come here to clean their flats and clear them out; then they call the Committee to appraise their homes and provide an estimate for the damages. Then the restoration process can begin,' added the engineer.

'After everything that happened, we returned to this house and asked the Church in Bartella for help,' said Mark Matti Ishaq Zora, the son of a local farmer who is the owner of the house. 'A team of experts came and appraised all that was necessary: the paintwork, the electrical installations, the doors and windows, the water pipes. This is our city, our life, our history. Besides, in Kurdistan we [are] struggling with difficult economic conditions. Food and rent are expensive. That is why I would like to tell all the families from Bartella to come back here. There is water and electricity and the Church is helping us. It is really wonderful to be able to live here again.'

Nohe Ishaq Sliman, another home owner, added: 'We are all returning to Bartella because this is our city. I have lived here since I was a child.

'I drank the waters of the Tigris River and work here as a farmer. I built this house myself. How can I leave? I thank our benefactors for the help in restoring my house. I could no longer pay 600 or 700 dollars a month for rent and leave this house standing empty. How could I not return? This is my city, I want to return and live here.'

Today, there are still 14,000 families – around 90,000 people - who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil, while nearly 13,000 homes have to be repaired or rebuilt amid security concerns and Kurdish-Iraqi political manoeuvring on the ground. Further, there are massive infrastructure concerns and, most urgently says ACN, the IDPs in Erbil will continue to need food aid as well as help paying the rent ahead of what they hope will be there return to the Nineveh Plains.

Some 342 properties are currently being renovated, in part through funding by ACN. To date, close to $35 million has been donated to ACN for emergency aid, including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.