In the decaying ruins of his home, David screamed through his teeth in frustration. All day he had been rifling through the debris of his former life, looking for his wife’s most valued possessions.
On the floor lay piles of grubby clothes, sequins and diamanté appliqués glinting in the torchlight. In the corner was an intricately carved wooden crib, upturned and covered in dusty rags. A picture of the Virgin Mary lay smashed on the floor. For two years, their home in the northern Iraqi town of Bartella – where David and his wife, Liza, had raised their two children – had been controlled by Isis fighters. In 2014, the militants took advantage of the regional chaos to sweep through Iraq, taking over large swathes of the country in weeks and imposing their brutal brand of medieval Islam. Millions fled their homes, among them most of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have lived in Iraq since biblical times.
This was the first time David had returned home since the summer of 2014, when he loaded his family on to a pick-up truck and they drove for their lives, with Isis militants on their heels. For two years, they have lived in Erbil, 40 miles to the east, with nothing from their old lives but the clothes they escaped in, knowing their home was under the rule of Islamists who wanted them dead. But last autumn, as the Iraqi army pushed through the countryside around Mosul, Bartella was finally liberated.
“This is my wife’s underwear,” David said as he scrabbled through the detritus of his home, which had been ransacked by Isis fighters. “This is my daughter’s dress. What did we do to deserve this? If my wife comes here she will break.”
"These shoes are her favourite. She’ll cry when she sees them"
Finally, he found what he was looking for. A pair of 5in stilettos, covered in a patchwork of multicoloured leather. “These are her favourite,” he said, his drawn face cracking into a smile. “She’ll cry when she sees them.”
David came back to Bartella as soon as he heard the militants had been driven out, but what he found was devastating. The church where he had worked as a rector had been vandalised and the courtyard was riddled with gaping holes left by mortar strikes. Houses owned by Christians had been marked by Isis fighters with the Arabic letter nun, for Nazarene.
Inside the church, crystals from the great chandelier crunched underfoot – the only sound in a deathly silence. The pews were covered in a thick layer of dust, and torn pages from hymn books fluttered in the breeze. Stones knocked from the altar crowded the floor, along with fragments of statues hacked to pieces by the militants, who consider them to be idolatrous.
In the corner, at the base of a tapered marble column, the bodies of four
Isis fighters could be seen through a hole in the floor. They were hidden here, according to Iraqi soldiers, when airstrikes by the anti-Isis coalition – of which Britain is a member – made it too dangerous for funerals to take place. One of them, half-covered in a yellow fleece blanket, had disintegrated so much that his face was little more than a pile of dust.
As dusk settled on the burnt field in front of David’s house, just a few hundred feet from the church, he stared out at the blackened mess of rubble that stretched into the distance. “When we left this place it was green. Grass grew everywhere,” David said. “Now look at it. It’s a ghost town. How can we come back?”
Inside, the damage was ruinous. There was almost nothing clean, or whole, left of their former lives. But as David walked out of the house that evening there were two things in his arms, things important enough to carry back to his family: his wife’s shoes, and an album of their wedding photos.
A few hours later, in a tiny, strip-lit flat in Erbil, Liza turned the colour of milk as David pulled out the shoes from an old plastic bag. With a sob that ripped through the air, she grabbed them and clutched them to her chest – bent almost double as she shook. It was as if she wanted to push them right through her body.
“I never thought I’d see these again,” she said, wiping her eyes with scarlet-manicured fingers. “I thought they had destroyed my house. These are all the memories I have.”
Gently placing the shoes next to her on the sofa, she picked up the photo album and flicked through to the pictures from her henna night – a celebration held before the wedding that, much like its British equivalent, involves dressing up and having a party with your girlfriends. The pages were filled with an explosion of giggling women in jewel-coloured silk dresses, curled hair sweeping down their backs. In one photo, they stood in a row, pouting, one hand on hip; in the next they had collapsed with laughter.
“When we left this place it was green. Grass grew everywhere. Now look at it. It’s a ghost town”
They could have been any group of young British women getting ready for a night out. Liza’s face was meticulously made up – eyes contoured in copper eyeshadow with thick black liner. Her lips shone vermilion as she posed, slim body encased in a knee-length red velvet sheath. She was wearing the shoes that were on the sofa next to us.
“We were so happy,” Liza said, stroking a picture of David dancing in a crowd of wedding guests. The table in the background was loaded with champagne, whisky and arak, a traditional aniseed-flavoured spirit. “Look at how much we’re laughing. We danced so much that night. I could always dance, even in shoes this high. Even when I was pregnant.”
In one picture, Liza – wearing a huge tulle dress – was holding the ceremonial sword used to cut the wedding cake. David stood next to her, ramrod straight in his slim-fitting suit. Both were clearly trying not to laugh.
“It was the best night. We had more than 700 guests – and we all drank champagne and danced,” said Liza, pulling the sleeves of her black sequined cardigan over her hands. “I miss my old life so much. But when Isis came they destroyed my dreams. I can never go back there again. I can build a new house just like the old one, but then one day Isis can just come back again.”
Though Isis had, when we visited, technically been cleared from Bartella, the area was still extremely dangerous. As the militants retreated they rigged some houses with explosives. Many are attached to the front doors of residential properties, seemingly targeting returning homeowners. Those that have been identified are sprayed with an X by the army, but many more have yet to be discovered.
As Liza flicked through the album, her daughters Maria and Sara, aged four and seven, stared wide-eyed at the glamorous pictures. Sara said she remembered Bartella, but seemed hazy on the details. Most of her schoolfriends were also Christians from that area, and they’d got used to the idea that they were waiting to return home. For Maria, Bartella was another world – all she knew was Erbil.
Though the family are better off than the thousands who live in makeshift camps around the city’s edge, surviving on church aid, they still only scrape by. David earns less than £400 a month doing odd jobs, most of which is spent on the £300 rent for their tiny flat.
The entire extended family is crammed into similar houses on the streets of Ankawa – Erbil’s Christian quarter – which is overflowing with refugees. “I want to go to Australia or America,” said Liza, hugging Maria to her chest. “I don’t want to be in Iraq. I want a new life. But it’s so expensive here that we can never save money, never make plans to go anywhere. And visas are almost impossible.”An Ode To Syria
An Ode To Syria
As Liza’s face began to crease again, four-year-old Maria leant over and pointed to a picture of her at the wedding. Staring intently, she looked back and forth from the photo to her mother, biting her lip in concentration. “Is that you?” she asked, incredulously. “Is that in Bartella? Can we go there?”
For a second, the mood lifted. Liza and David looked at each other and laughed. “Your dad will have to go back,” Liza said, tugging at her daughter’s long plait. “I’ve got another wedding coming up, and I need him to go back and get my black high heels.” Smiling, she pushed her copper hair back from her face and suddenly looked years younger – more like the happy girl in the wedding photos.
“Some people are always thinking about getting more gold,” she said, grinning. “I’m always thinking about getting more shoes.”
David rolled his eyes and bent down to his bag to pull out the last surprise he’d retrieved from the house.
“I took these glasses back from the kitchen,” he said, brandishing a couple of dirty tumblers in front of her. “Tonight we will drink arak from them and be happy. We’ve lost everything, but we still have our family.”
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