Christian displaced families of Talkif district, in Iraq’s northern Ninewa province have been in limbo for almost five years. These families say they are still reluctant to return to their homes citing three obstacles.
Tlkef was retaken from the grip of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2017. Since then a few number of the Christian community have returned. They cite security instability, poor infrastructure and unemployment as main reasons behind their decision to remain in displacement in safer areas in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
The presence of detention facility in the center of Tlkef, where hundreds are held most on charges of terrorism in addition to the deployment of security forces in and around the district have raised security concerns among the residents.
“IS fighters burned down and demolished more than 80 houses which belonged to Christians; however many of these houses were rehabilitated with the help of the church and some humanitarian organizations,” said Sufian.
Another major reason which is blamed for the Christian’s unwillingness to return is the lack of job opportunities, a problem that should be tackled by the Iraqi government and international organizations.
According to figures released by the Directorate for Christians affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs thousands of families choose to live in displacement despite that their home areas in Ninewa were recaptured more than three years ago, while returnees complain the lack of essential services.
"A small percentage of people have returned to the center of the district is very low due to several reasons, including the presence of the armed forces. Tlkef has been turned into a military base, and the people are scared away," Tlkef district commissioner Basim Yaqub Ballu told KirkukNow.
"There is a prison where suspected terrorists are held in addition to an anti-terrorism court. The worst thing is the presence of IS sleeper cells in the area; so how can the displaced families return?" he said.
Basim yaqub indicated that the streets, the schools, the hospitals as well as the power networks have all been damaged during the fighting and are in need of rehabilitation.
“Since 2013, the Iraqi government has not spent a penny to rehabilitate Tlkef despite our continuous pleas," he said.
Tlkef includes the sub-districts of Alqush, Wanki and Faida predominantly inhabited by the Christian community, followed by the Ezidis, the Shabaks and the Muslims.
Pastor Shahir Nuri, a patron of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Tlkef, told KirkukNow that many Christian families have adapted to life in the Kurdistan Region’s Duhok province, and they are not willing to return. Others refuse to return in fear of being targeted once despite that the security situation here is relatively stable. "
The church has contributed to the efforts to encourage the return of displaced families through providing job opportunities and rehabilitation damaged houses in coordination with two foreign humanitarian agencies.
"If all the houses of Tlkef and Batnaya are rebuilt, the displaced Christians will definitely return home," said Shahir Nuri.
An estimated 1.2 million IDPs have sought refuge in Kurdistan Region provinces; 7 percent of them are Christians, according to statistics of the KRG’s ministry of Interior’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center.
According to UN figures, the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped from 1.5 million to between 200 and 300 thousand.
"The district council is maintaining a good level of coordination with humanitarian agencies to help rehabilitate damaged houses of Christians and provide job opportunities for the youths”, said the head of Tlkef’s district council Abdulsalam Sha’ban, adding that these agencies “have carried out dozens of projects, particularly for the Christian community.”
A housing project in Battnaya is currently being implemented by the UN in cooperation with a US organization; meanwhile, a school and a hospital will also be built to encourage return of residents.
"Out of an estimated 13,000 displaced people, only 52 Christian families have returned to Tlkef district; however the majority of the families which fled Talsquf and Batufa have returned to their homes," said Adulsalam Sha’ban.
When the Islamic State militants arrived in Ninewa, they gave three options to the Christians: either to convert to Islam, pay a tax or leave the so-called Caliphate. Many chose to leave and live in displacement camps.