ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Touma Youssef, an Iraqi Christian known as Abu Finan, stood for the first time in 2½ years before the front door of his house in the town of Karemlash, east of Mosul.
Sadness filled his eyes as he looked at what was left. Abu Finan, after retiring from the Department of Agriculture in Ninevah province, had spent his time enjoying his own garden, planting various types of flowers and trees.
Now his garden is gone. Islamic State (IS) fighters destroyed it when they took control of the area in mid-2014 and turned his house into a military base. They wrecked the furniture and looted the family's belongings. When the Iraqi army liberated the town on Oct. 24, all that was left in Abu Finan's house was a mess, and walls filled with slogans inciting violence against Christians.
“I returned home with my wife to clean it and try to repair the damages. I brought along several workers to clean the garden. We are getting ready to return home now. … We insist on coming back despite everything and despite all the circumstances,” he told Al-Monitor.
His wife, Amira Mubarak, was picking up remnants of clothes strewn around on the floor to burn them. She told Al-Monitor it is imperative that the state provide protection for Christians in Ninevah Valley. “We are ready to return, but we need the state to give us protection guarantees so that we don’t face the same tragedy of the past two years,” she said.
The couple has been luckier than some other families in the town, as IS did not burn down their house or otherwise destroy it, as was the case with 70% of the houses.
As Christian families are preparing to return to the liberated areas, Al-Monitor saw groups of young Christian volunteers cleaning homes and other buildings, and clearing roads.
“We, as volunteers, are working on a daily basis in Karemlash to clean houses, churches and streets in coordination with the town’s citizens," Valentine, a Christian youth who was lighting a candle in St. Addai Church in the center of Karemlash, told Al-Monitor. "We are eager to return to our liberated areas."
The Rev. Thabet Habib of the church in Karemlash told Al-Monitor, “The time has come for Christians to return to the liberated areas in Ninevah Valley, now that the military operations have ended. This return will be gradual.”
Habib said 80% of the infrastructure is destroyed in Hamdaniya district, where Karemlash is located. About half of the displaced people have expressed their willingness to return right away and the rest will come gradually, he said. However, Habib noted some obstacles that might delay the return.
“Some people are afraid of a [lingering] presence of IS members or individuals accused of being loyal to IS in the remote town," he said. "Other people have lost faith in the neighbors who partook in the looting and burning of houses. These are the same people who used to visit our areas and live with us before IS controlled them."
Habib stressed that the security situation needs to be carefully clarified and resolved. He said that people accused of belonging to terrorist groups should be held accountable and that Christians should be given guarantees that their areas will be protected. “Christians must feel that they are the decision-makers in their own areas,” he added.
Now that it has been liberated, the district falls under the control of the local police in addition to two Christian factions, the Ninevah Plain Protection Units and the Babylon Brigades, which fought with the Popular Mobilization Units to oust IS.
Despite the passage of nearly three months since the liberation of Hamdaniya, the area is not ready for all the residents to return. District Commissioner Nissan Kurumi said the first task at hand is to rebuild infrastructure and restore main services.
Kurumi told Al-Monitor, “The Iraqi government, the international community and the concerned organizations have not taken any step for reconstruction.”
Sara Bahnam, a displaced Karemlash villager, has been staying in Ankawa. Many have taken refuge in the Erbil suburb. She told Al-Monitor, “We are sick and tired of being displaced and paying rent in recent years. I will be the first to return to Hamdaniya and to my house, whatever the obstacles. The areas are now liberated from the clutches of IS.”
The population of Hamdaniya district, which is mostly Christian, was 175,000 in 2009, according to the Statistics Directorate of Ninevah, and is estimated to have reached about 200,000 before IS attacked in 2014.
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