In the middle of 2014, when extremists looked likely to attack their towns, many of the Iraqi Christians living on the Ninawa Plain fled. Whole towns were abandoned as the population, fearing persecution by the extremist Sunni Muslim group now calling itself the Islamic State, fled for the comparative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. One of those abandoned towns was Karamales, about 30 kilometres east of Mosul, which has now become an Islamic State, or IS, group stronghold.
But out of a population of around 5,000 in Karamales, one woman refused to leave: 71-year-old Raheel Yousif Kuniaya. And because the old woman refused to leave she ended up living in the town, virtually by herself, with only the extremists for company.
Happily, after five months, Raheel and several others were recently released by the IS group and she arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, about two weeks ago. She is now sheltering with her relatives in a makeshift camp for displaced people in the city’s Christian neighbourhood, Ainkawa.
Her story of survival in Karamales and in Mosul has seen many others, both from her hometown and members of the media in Erbil, flocking to talk to her.
“During the time I spent in Karamales all by myself I was roaming the streets a lot,” Raheel explained to eager listeners on the day NIQASH visited her. “I wanted to challenge the gunmen’s warnings. One time they even fired their guns in the air to force me not to leave my house.”
“Although they were not happy that I was there they continued to give me food and water,” she continues. “Sometimes they were nice to me and other times they were not nice at all. It all depended on the people who were in the town and the people who were in charge of them.”
Many of the locals from Karamales wanted to know what had happened to their property and Raheel had to tell them that she saw a lot of looting. “They destroyed everything they couldn’t take with them, including water tanks,” she says.
Raheel told her cousin, Shammas Ghanem, that she had tried to protect his house from the IS looters until the day she was forced to leave. “I didn’t let them in,” she reassures him. “I even took a picture of your parents off the wall and put it in a safe place for you.”
Ghanem also asked Raheel if the extremists had smashed all his bottles of beer. No, she said, they didn’t smash them, they took them away. Everyone listening began to laugh at that.
Raheel says the toughest part of the last five months was when she was forced to leave Karamales. The extremists realized they couldn’t persuade her to leave on her own so they picked her up in their own cars and drove her to a home where other elderly locals were living in Mosul.
One of the children from Karamales asked her about her cats. “The poor thing. I left her there,” Raheel says. “I put out as much food as I could when I left. But I can still hear her meows ringing in my ears,” she notes sadly; everybody knew that the old woman, who never had her own family, treated her pets like her children. Her two brothers live overseas.
Raheel says that when she got to the old people’s home in Mosul she felt much better. She was sharing a room with two other old Christian women and she made friends with the employees in the house. Raheel also managed to call her relatives in Erbil to let them know she was still alive. And she says they also got a lot of visits from members of the IS group who were always coming to try to convince the Christians there to convert to Islam.
Raheel says she never left the old people’s home except for once when she was taken to the IS group’s local court for Sharia law. She, the two women and seven Christian men, who she had not realised were also in the same house, were supposed to have verdicts handed down.
“At the court we stood before a young, bearded man for about half an hour who was reciting the Koran and trying to convince us to convert to Islam. He then told us to return to the house but not before he gave each of us a copy of the Koran,” Raheel recalls. “But they didn’t give me one – I don’t know how to read.”
A few days after they went to the court the staff at the house told Raheel and the other Christians that they were going to be sent back to their families.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Raheel says. The next morning they were put on a bus which took them down the road leading towards Kirkuk, a northern city that is currently under the control of Iraqi Kurdish military. The ten Christians on the bus – three women and seven men – thought they might actually be being taken to their deaths by execution. Instead though the bus stopped at a dirt barrier and they were ordered to disembark.
Their journey didn’t end there – the group were now in a no-man’s land between terrain controlled by the Islamic State and that controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish. The dirt barriers were there to prevent anyone from Mosul, regardless of their circumstances, entering the Iraqi Kurdish area. The group were forced to stay there for two days before the Christian church in Kirkuk was able to convince the authorities to allow the group in.
Since Raheel got to Erbil, she has enjoyed a modicum of celebrity. Her cousin, Ghanem, announced her arrival over loudspeakers and sweets were distributed in her honour. Everyone wants to have his or her picture taken with this survivor and curious journalists have come by to interview her – her picture has appeared in several local newspapers. She’s also being visited by many other Iraqi Christians who want to know if Raheel has any information for them on missing relatives or abandoned property. It is already clear that the stories Raheel tells are going to be remembered on the Ninawa Plain for a long time.