Iraq's Assyrians battle ISIS for survival

Story highlights

  • Assyrians are an ancient Middle Eastern minority -- they are part of the rapidly dwindling Christian population of Iraq
  • After ISIS overran their villages, some Assyrians formed a militia to fight for survival against the terror group

Nils Metzger is a freelance journalist who traveled in Iraq during March 2015 with photographer Andy Spyra, whose images are featured in this story.

(CNN)When ISIS overran their villages near Mosul in August 2014, a small group of Assyrians, a Middle Eastern minority with a history reaching back more than 4,000 years, picked up weapons and formed their own militia: Dwekh Nawsha -- "The Sacrificers."

Assyrians belong to the rapidly dwindling Christian population of Iraq -- recent estimates from CAPNI, the largest Christian relief organization in northern Iraq put the number as low as 300,000 compared with 1.5 million 20 years ago -- and many among them see the fight with ISIS as a final battle for survival against the Islamists.
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"'Ah, Assyrians -- I've read about them in the Bible,' is what many people say," says Marcus Naissan, a 25-year-old electrical technician and member of Dwekh Nawsha. "But we are not just history, we are still alive, we are still here."
The exodus of Christians from Iraq started prior to ISIS -- and the civil war in the mid-2000s took an especially heavy toll. Today, most Iraqi Christians live in Kurdish areas in the north, which have been a relative haven of stability. And so far, the Kurds have been taking heavy losses to defend Christian and Yezidi minorities against ISIS.
Every night, the fighters hear the rumbling sound of coalition airplanes in the sky over Baqufa where they have their safe house just a few miles from the frontline. Here they relax, patrol the empty streets of the village and try to hinder ISIS suicide commandos from entering the near city of Dohuk where UNHCR says almost 100,000 refugees -- many of them Christians -- have found a temporary place to stay.
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So far, the militia has only assembled and trained 40 fighters.
But Rama Baito, manager of the digital media presence of the group, shows me his direct messages on Facebook -- dozens of ex-soldiers, diaspora Assyrians or Christian activists from all over the world contact him and offer monetary support or their own presence on the frontline.
"We have 200 people waiting right now, because we simply do not have enough weapons and training capacities," Baito says.
Since they are still small and have no heavy weaponry, the Dwekh Nawsha fighters say they coordinate closely with local Kurdish Peshmerga commanders and share the same foxholes on the frontline.
The fighters are a very mixed bunch. A young baker, carrying his large military dagger in an elegant sheath, says he brought his father when he enlisted. "But now, we see each other only rarely because he is in another unit of our group," he says.
"When I go on vacation, he goes to the field and the other way around. So every time we swap units, I wait for him, give him a quick hug and then leave back home."
Right now, ISIS is focused on other fronts -- the yellow fields of the Niniveh plains are quite safe for the mostly young fighters.
But none of them thinks victory over ISIS will be quick, nor that fighting will end immediately afterward.
All they can do now is patrol the deserted alleys of Baqufa, making sure the wild dogs don't take over the town and hope one day their relatives will be able to return.