The retired police officer flips the pages of his photo album. The pictures are mostly of his former life in Sinjar, an area in northern Iraq, well known for the wide mix of different religious communities living there.
By Shanna Rasho, in Sinjar
Issa Shamoun, 55, points at one of the pictures. This is his family’s home, he says. “And those were our neighbours’ houses – one was a Muslim neighbour and the others are Yazidi,” he explains. Shamoun himself is a Christian and he still celebrates the fact that Sinjar, a stop on one of the ancient Middle Eastern trading routes, was once home to Muslims, Christians and Yazidis as well as Arabs and Turkmen before the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of the area in 2014.
“But that is all over now,” he sighs. “We lived in peace before that black day. Now they have separated us forever.”
The extremist Islamic State, or IS, group believed in their own arcane and brutal version of Sunni Islam and persecuted all other religions in the lands they took over – they enslaved and killed Yazidi families and drove Christian Iraqis out of town, if they didn’t kill them first. There are still four Christian ex-residents from Sinjar missing, believed murdered.
Shamoun and his family fled to Dohuk, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they still live today.
During the attack by the IS group, most Sinjar Christians took refuge on Sinjar mountain, along with many Yazidis, recounts Maysar Adani, an activist who has specialized in tallying up the IS group’s many crimes.
Even before the IS group arrived in Sinjar, the numbers of Christian families there had been decreasing. Security was just one reason, politics another, as control of the area was disputed, with the Iraqi Kurdish and the federal Iraqi government tussling over the area. Difficult economic circumstances were yet another reason to leave.
Today, after the IS group wreaked so much havoc there from 2014 onwards, there are no longer any Christians in Sinjar. The group destroyed or wrecked dozens of religious sites that didn’t fit in with their beliefs, including shrines, mosques, churches, archaeological sites and even some shopping areas.
Researcher Mohammed Ali says that over the past two years, a handful of Muslim and Yazidi families have returned to Sinjar. But hundreds of Yazidi families remain elsewhere and he doesn’t believe that any single Christian family has returned.
“The IS occupation affected us a lot,” says Gabriel Shamoun, who now lives in the village of Siji, also in Dohuk. “We lost our homes and our businesses. A lot of Christians fled to the Kurdish region, and some of them have immigrated to other countries, such as Germany, seeking asylum.”
Shamoun himself says he can’t bring himself to leave Iraq. “I can’t live too far away from Sinjar,” he explains. “I only feel comfortable if I can breathe the air there, where I grew up. I visited at least twice last month and often go to visit friends and acquaintances who have returned. We have unforgettable memories of a life there, together with our neighbours, that can never return.”
Shamoun says it’s very hard to forgive what happened. And retired policeman, Issa Shamoun, agrees. “Even if we return to Sinjar one day, we will not trust anyone there again because of the betrayal that came from people around us.”
This story is part of a 2020 project by German media development, NGO, MICT, in cooperation with the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.