One question that still angers many of the Christians who fled northern Iraq as jihadists from Islamic State (IS) advanced on their towns and villages is, “Where were the Kurdish forces?”
Kurdish Peshmerga forces had taken over positions abandoned by Iraqi army forces who had retreated in June 2014 as IS approached Mosul. After the fall of the northern city, the Kurdistan Regional Government took charge of all disputed territories to which both they and the embattled Arab-led government in Baghdad laid claim. These included the towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain that were home to large numbers of Christians and that had taken in Christians fleeing from Mosul.
However in early August 2014, when jihadists reached the villages and towns around Mosul and began forcing all non-Sunnis from them, Christians reported that the Peshmerga they depended on had disappeared.
Bahija, 65, now a refugee in Jordan, told World Watch Monitor that the Kurdish fighters stationed near her family home in Tel Qaif told her they would not leave them. She said that because of what they had told her, she went to bed as usual and was woken up the following morning by seven or eight IS jihadists shouting “Allahu akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”) and banging on her door. She said the Peshmerga had left at 21.30 the evening before. The IS members ransacked the house while her ill, elderly father lay in bed upstairs.
A woman from Mosul who initially fled to Qaraqosh before seeking refuge in Jordan also questioned the actions of the Peshmerga. The woman, who did not wish to be named, told World Watch Monitor: “The Kurds were not there the night IS came; they handed Christians to IS on a plate.”
A priest from the Assyrian Church of the East, Fr. Yusuf Binjamin, accused the Kurds of deliberately misleading the Christians, which he said followed an historic pattern begun a century ago when a Kurdish Sheikh tricked an Assyrian Patriarch, having him murdered moments after the pair had signed an alliance.
“They told me not evacuate families, that nothing would happen,” the priest said. He added: “Until now the Kurds have been bothering us and threatening us.” He said that for the past century Kurds had been trying to make Assyrians, Iraqi Christians, leave or sell their land.
One Christian refugee offered an explanation for the Kurds abandoning their protection of Christian villages – to ensure that IS could not cross the border into the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, which has become a safe-haven for displaced Iraqis. “I heard that because Daesh [IS] was coming to Qaraqosh, Peshmerga closed the roads so that Daesh could not come to Erbil [the Kurdish capital],” Bassam said in a statement to the religious freedom charity ADF International.
Conspiracy theories flourish where there is poor access to impartial media and weak law enforcement. Even if the Kurds were simply shoring up their own positions after seeing IS’s capabilities in Mosul, rather than tricking the Christians, the lack of clear information has only compounded the conviction articulated by some Christians refugees that there they are no longer safe within Iraq.