In the offices of a Kurdish government ministry created to promote ethnic and religious harmony, a Jewish man – one of the last in Iraq – reflects on his nation’s past of persecution and a future darkened by ISIS.
“Iraq,” says Sherzhad Memsani, “is a graveyard for ethnic and religious minorities. We never expected another Holocaust would happen. But it did.”
ISIS killed and tortured Iraqis who did not subscribe to their extreme brand of Islam. Thousands of others fled their homes to escape the militant group’s brutality. Now, some of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities teeter on extinction.
Hopes for a more tolerant future blossomed as Iraqi forces launched an offensive October 17 to oust ISIS from Nineveh province and Mosul, the city the Sunni militants made the seat of their caliphate. The military campaign was touted as a pivotal moment for a nation that has been suffering from sectarian strife since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
What would happen once the self-proclaimed Islamic State no longer controlled large swaths of Iraqi territory? Could Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government, accused by many of stoking religious and ethnic differences, lead the way forward to peace? Or would Iraq erupt in an outright civil war leading, perhaps, to a nation splintered?
As the war to oust ISIS unfolds on the streets of Mosul, Iraq’s immediate future hangs in the balance. Precarious. Delicate. Unsure.
The people from Mosul and Nineveh province, as well as those of Kurdish origin in Irbil, represent many of Iraq’s minorities. They long for a united land, though many remain skeptical peace can take hold. Others live in fear that decades of strife may have rendered them invisible forever.
Here are some of their voices.
Bashir Mohammed Khadir lost two of his brothers years ago under Saddam Hussein.
He lost two more – both policemen – when ISIS attacked his hometown of Tal Afar on June 10, 2014. The brutality of ISIS surprised Khadir.
“They would have killed me, too, if I had not left,” Khadir says. “They are not Sunni. They do not have a religion.”
Khadir operated an auto repair shop in Tal Afar, a city about 45 miles west of Mosul. At one time it was home to 200,000 people, most of them Turkmen, Iraq’s third largest ethnic group. They were a mix of both Sunni and Shia.
But when the Sunni militants of ISIS rolled in, Shias fled the city. Many Tal Afar residents, including Khadir, fear revenge killings if and when Iraqi forces succeed in defeating ISIS in Nineveh province.
One source of great consternation for Khadir, a Sunni, is the presence of the Shia militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi among the Iraqi forces.
“It will be disaster,” he says. “I will not go back to Tal Afar.”
Khadir’s hometown is strategically located on the highway between Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Tal Afar was notorious for sectarian strife after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and Khadir worries simmering tensions will explode again if a partisan force enters victorious in Tal Afar.
Khadir escaped Tal Afar with his wife, four sons and four daughters. They stayed for a while at a camp for the displaced in Khazir, on the Kurdish border, before making it to Baherka, a large camp just outside Irbil.
At Baherka, Sunni and Shia live side by side with religious minorities, united in their hatred for ISIS.
Khadir opened a small tea shop in the camp to earn a few dinars. Still, it’s not enough to feed his children properly. He bought a small freezer so he can buy meat in bulk. He and his family sleep on the ground in front of the freezer, inside a makeshift home fashioned from a shipping container.
One of his daughters, Saja, was injured in an al Qaeda bombing several years ago and needs surgery to correct a problem in her eye. But Khadir is not hopeful he will be able to access medical treatment anytime soon.
None of his children – the oldest is 12 – is going to school.
“There is a school in the camp but I will have to provide bags, clothes, books. I don’t even have money to feed them. There is no use.”
Khadir’s son Mohammed, 6, listens to his father speak. From the time he wakes up ‘til it’s time for bed, the boy sits on the mattress in front of the freezer and watches an Arabic equivalent of the Disney Channel on satellite television.
Khadir gulps his glass of syrupy tea before he launches into a tirade. He blames the 2003 invasion for creating a power vacuum in Iraq that gave rise to extremism. He says the United States abandoned Iraq in its hour of need when it withdrew its troops in 2011.
But mostly, Khadir resents the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad for playing to sectarian tensions.
“Iraq can only be one again if we remove the people in power,” he says. “The government does not care about the people.”
He mentions a law that bans alcohol. The parliament passed it in October, just days after the Mosul offensive launched. Khadir considers himself a Muslim, but says: “Not everyone in Iraq is a Muslim. Why should there be a ban on alcohol?”
These are the kinds of things Khadir believes will continue to stoke differences among Iraqis.
“It’s impossible,” he says, “for life to go back to normal, for us to live in peace.”
When ISIS fighters attacked Khairo Ido’s village near Sinjar, all the men took up arms. There were almost 100 of them, and they fired their AK-47s at the militants for six hours until they ran out of ammunition.
Ido watched his cousin get shot and die; he buried him with his bare hands.
Under mortar and rocket attack, Ido and his fellow villagers ran to Sinjar Mountain, venerated by the Yazidis and historically used as a place of refuge during periods of conflict.
The Yazidis practice a religion derived from Zoroastrianism and other faiths. They pray to the peacock angel Malak Taus, whose other name is Shaytan. In Arabic, Shaytan means devil, and ISIS targeted the Yazidis as infidels and devil worshipers.
Ido and his family were among 50,000 Yazidis who tried to escape ISIS on Sinjar Mountain, where they became trapped without food, water or medicine. United Nations investigators have accused ISIS of committing genocide against the Yazidi people, systematically torturing and killing them and taking women as sex slaves.
When Kurdish Peshmerga forces opened a corridor of escape, Ido, his wife and five girls managed to make it to safety in Irbil. Here, in the Kurdish capital, they have been living with other Yazidi families on the grounds of the unfinished Irbil Park Hotel in one of the city’s poshest areas. They have nothing left in their lives, yet exist next to places where a cup of coffee costs $10.
A few months after they arrived in Irbil, tragedy struck again. Ido’s 4-year-old daughter, Rana, fell into the well of a makeshift toilet and drowned.
“We survived thirst and hunger and so much killing,” he says. “And she died this way.”
He says he can tell that his daughters need help coping with the trauma they have suffered.
“So many of our women were taken by Daesh,” he says, referring to ISIS by its Arabic name. He thinks about how he would feel if his daughters were held as slaves. He doesn’t think he could stand it.
“I don’t think we can live side by side with Arabs anymore,” he says.
Centuries of persecution of Yazidis have dwindled their numbers. By some estimates, 70,000 Yazidis fled their homes after ISIS and fewer than 700,000 remain in Iraq.
“Shia and Sunni kill each other in this land,” Ido says. “Kurds kill each other. I want to go back to Sinjar. That is where I was born. But I don’t see a future.”
Ido is 48 and once was proud of his simple but fulfilling life. He worked as a cameraman and owned a small photography shop in his village. He had taken thousands of photographs of his family, his friends, his community. So many of his subjects were killed; so many of his photos destroyed. Like many others who escaped ISIS, Ido and his family left only with the clothes they were wearing and documentation of their identities.
When asked about the future for his family and his nation, he pauses.
“I don’t know what to say, really,” he says. “I wish I could give my children a future. There is nothing left in Iraq.”
Raja Paulous runs a small grocery inside Ashti camp, where she has been living since she fled her home in Qaraqosh in the summer of 2014. That’s when ISIS fighters took control of the northern Iraqi city of about 50,000. Most were Christians who faced forced conversion to Islam or death if they did not flee.
Paulous operated a grocery delivery service in Qaraqosh; the store at Ashti is second nature to her. She picks up items from all over Irbil, the relatively safe Kurdish capital that saw a huge influx of displaced Iraqis after ISIS took hold in 2014.
Her shelves are stocked with potato chips, baklava, balloons, diapers, cigarettes, Fanta, Pepsi and even a toy gun.
“This is to kill Daesh,” she laughs, picking up the pink plastic gun.
A gold cross on a chain around her neck glistens in the afternoon sun.
“I am pretty sure our house is destroyed,” she says. “Daesh destroys people, families, churches. Everything.
“How can I forgive them? I can’t. God will understand. It’s not something I can control.”
Paulous, 46, says she is thankful her husband and children are alive. She wants to return to Qaraqosh after the military campaign is over and ISIS fighters are driven out.
But restarting life won’t be easy. A new home, new grocery business. And how many will even dare to return to Qaraqosh? Before ISIS, it was the largest Christian city in Iraq. Now it is destroyed, a huge percentage of the homes and buildings in ruin.
Paulous says many of her neighbors are reluctant to return. They believe ISIS militants will pop up again through the tunnels they dug under their hometown. And trust, she says, is a thing of the past in Iraq.
“We don’t know who is our friend and who is our enemy anymore,” she says.
And when people cannot rely on each other, she asks, how can there be a united Iraq again?
THE KURDISH JEW
When it first took control of Nineveh towns and cities, ISIS marked Christian homes with the Arabic equivalent of the letter ‘N’ for Nazarene, a demeaning term for the followers of Jesus. Sherzad Mamsani thought about the time his own family’s house was similarly marked with a Star of David during a pogrom against Jews in World War II.
“ISIS is not a new phenomenon. There has always been an ISIS for us,” he says, referring to years of persecution of minorities in Iraq.
At one time, there was a thriving Jewish community in Iraq. The New York Times cited a 1917 Ottoman census that counted 80,000 Jews among the 220,000 residents of Baghdad.
But the community has largely been extinguished through discrimination, persecution and exodus to Israel.
Mamsani grew up in the Kurdish city of Irbil, the son of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, and recalls his own experience of being forced to study Islam in school and pray in the Muslim fashion.
He says only 10 Jews are left in Baghdad. Another 50 families are said to be living in the Kurdish areas, but Mamsani believes the real number is higher. He says many Jews practice their faith clandestinely because they are scared.
A year ago, the Kurdish Regional Government appointed Mamsani as the Jewish representative to its Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. It’s not a post Mamsani takes lightly.
Extremely proud of his heritage, Mamsani has paid a heavy price for his outspokenness. After he penned a 1997 book on relations between Israel and the Jews of Kurdistan, he received death threats and survived three attacks, one with a silenced gun. Another left him without his right arm.
He waves his discolored prosthetic arm in the air as he talks. His passion for saving his community is apparent.
When ISIS rolled into Iraq, Mamsani feared a death knell for Jews like him.
“They have expelled Jews, Christians, Kurds, Yazidis. Iraq is a graveyard for ethnic and religious minorities,” he says.
“We never expected another Holocaust would happen. But it did.”
He wanted to pick up a weapon and help fight the militants, but he could not reconcile the killing of another human being with his faith. Instead he decided to support the Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling ISIS since 2014 by providing food.
“I’m a good cook, you know,” Mamsani says, smiling.
Despite his optimism, he believes the past defines the future in Iraq, and he says there is a real possibility the country will splinter along sectarian lines.
“Practically, it has already happened,” he says. “A Sunni cannot go to a Shia neighborhood. A Kurd cannot wear his traditional clothes in Baghdad. Abadi cannot enter Mosul.”
Mamsani is referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, whose Shia party has controlled Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and a purging of Sunnis from positions of power. Neither Abadi nor his party is trusted in cities with sizable Sunni populations like Mosul.
With so few Jews left in Iraq, why doesn’t Mamsani leave for Israel, as so many of his countrymen have done?
“Jews existed here even before Moses went to the promised land,” he says. “My roots are in this land. If Judaism has survived here for 2,700 years, do you think it will go away so easily?”
That’s what Mamsani hangs on to as he watches the campaign in Mosul progress. The liberation of the city and the possibility of a new beginning.
THE SUNNI ARAB
There’s nothing quite like the aroma of fresh samoon, and Ahmed Mushal Hassan remembers it well.
He owned a bakery with a stone oven that turned out thousands of loaves of the Iraqi yeast bread that, with tea, often constitutes a meal for workers in Mosul. It’s comfort, like a hearty soup on a chilling January day.
Some of that samoon would be very welcome now as Hassan recalls the life that turned into a distant dream overnight.
Hassan, 45, and Taghridi, 37, were away in the Kurdish city of Dohuk with some of their children the day ISIS took control in Mosul. Taghridi is Kurdish and Hassan’s second wife; between them they had seven children.
“I have no idea what happened to the rest of my family,” he says, sitting on the floor of a well-appointed trailer at the Baherka camp for the displaced.
Taghridi Hassan plastered the walls of the trailer with pictures of perennials and a poster of Istanbul sparkling at night. She covered the mattresses with printed fleece blankets neatly tucked in like sofa covers.
“We are like refugees. It is degrading for us here,” she says. “But we don’t have to live like we are poor.”
The couple has a special-needs child, and Taghridi Hassan says she worries for her. It is hard enough in Iraq, but not being able to get her daughter the special attention and care she needs is troubling.
“We have nothing in this camp,” she says.
They spend each minute of the day close to their most important documents, in case they have to leave suddenly.
“I know Daesh took my house,” Ahmed Hassan says. “I am not sure what they did to my bakery.”
But he figured even the most evil of men probably craved samoon. Maybe, he says, if they were Iraqis. But if they are all foreigners, the bakery could be destroyed.
“On the news, I heard Iraqi forces entered Gogjali,” he says. “My house is just 10 minutes from there.”
As anxious as he is to return to Mosul, deep in his heart Hassan knows the city can never be the same.
“It will be much worse in Mosul than what happened in Falluja or Ramadi,” he says, referring to two cities in Anbar province already liberated from ISIS.
“Mosul was a diverse city. Anbar is homogenous.”
In Mosul, he means, people already had their differences. With the invasion of ISIS and the battle to retake the city, those fissures have widened – and will be harder to bridge than they were in Anbar.
There is another gnawing concern. Hassan talks about the nature of his people. Here, saving one’s honor is a big part of moving on. And many people feel their honor was broken.
“You know, we are a tribal people. If my brother is killed, we must take revenge.”
THE KURDISH SUFI
Mariwan Naqshbandi remembers the 1988 Halabja massacre as though it occurred yesterday.
It was the morning of March 16 when Iraqi warplanes and artillery attacked Naqshbandi’s hometown in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They unleashed mustard gas and sarin, a clear and colorless nerve agent.
In Halabja, 5,000 people died that day. Among them was Naqshbandi’s father.
Naqshbandi was left to navigate life without his father – not such an unusual thing in Iraq – but also with terrible memories that marred his youth.
“One of the saddest things is that I had to step over the bodies of my friends I played football with,” he says.
Naqshbandi recalls a number of Iraqi soldiers who were trapped in the town and took refuge with the Kurds.
“We saved their lives even as we were being gassed by their government,” he says.
Now, long after the death of Saddam Hussein, Naqshbandi, 51, works as the spokesman for the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. He practices Sufism, known as the mystical dimension of Islam.
His office promotes religious coexistence, and his dedication is fueled by his memories of Halabja. His personal goal is to rid Iraq of the extremism that’s shredding the country to bits. Education, he says, is the key to the nation’s future.
“There are 5,417 mosques in Kurdistan,” he says. “More than 3,000 have Friday prayers. Even if we can reach a small percentage of those, we can begin to stamp out extremism.”
So, he has his staff call the imams at the mosques, replay their speeches and point out statements where they wavered from Islam’s peaceful aim.
“The imams spew hatred,” he says. “They encourage young people to join Daesh. We have made preparations for what might happen after Daesh, to not let the conflict deepen. At least here, in the Kurdish areas.”
He’s certain Kurdistan will flourish. But neither Kurds nor Shias, he says, sympathize with Sunni Arabs after years of Hussein’s dictatorship and the violence that filled the power vacuum after his fall.
“I don’t think the Sunni parts of Iraq will ever have their own region like Kurdistan,” Naqshbandi says. “The infrastructure of those areas has been destroyed. They won’t be able to stand alone.”
But Naqshbandi, like so many of his fellow Iraqis, dreams of an Iraq that can one day be like the countries he has traveled to – filled with diverse peoples.
After ISIS, Isra Aksram felt like a deer running from a hunter with no respect for animals.
Aksram is Shabak, and though her people have lived on the Nineveh Plains for five centuries, less is known about them than the Yazidis.
The 250,000 Shabaks in Iraq often identify more with the Kurds; their language has much in common with Persian, Turkish and Kurdish. Most are Shiites, though some Shabaks, like Aksram, are Sunnis.
Aksram’s sadness stems from the knowledge that one day soon, her people could be erased altogether. ISIS terrorizes them as non-Muslims, and even before the extremists marched into Nineveh, Shabaks were severely mistreated by past Iraqi regimes.
In the summer of 2014, Aksram fled after ISIS overran her hometown of Bartella. She had always felt lucky that even with her family’s meager earnings, they had managed to buy a car. That car became a godsend.
After driving the 40 miles to Irbil, Aksram, her husband and their three young children spent 25 days homeless on the streets of Irbil, living out of their car, before the Baherka camp was erected and the family found refuge in a small trailer.
On this afternoon, Aksram lays out bowls of rice and lamb on the floor for her two youngest. There’s only one piece of furniture in the room – a small table with a 22-inch TV set. Aksram, 27, watches the news every day, though the picture is snowy, to learn the latest on ISIS.
Despite the persecution of the Shabaks, Aksram’s family had never been targeted before ISIS.
“We did not feel discrimination before. Daesh – they are not Muslims. They are not even humans,” she says.
Aksram was overjoyed when she heard Iraqi forces had liberated Bartella. She is eager to return home and send her children back to school. Without education, she says, they will end up as manual laborers like her husband, a construction worker.
Aksram so wishes for a better life for her children than the one she lives – poor and always filled with uncertainty. They must stand on their own, she says, not just for themselves but for their people.
“I think we can all live together again,” she says, “if the security situation is improved. I don’t want my children to ever experience what I did.”
That is her hope.
Mohammed Saleh might tell you he is Kurdish. He might even tell you he is Muslim. He is neither.
Saleh is a Kakai, another religious minority in Iraq that the outside world knows little about.
The Kakais live in the Kurdish provinces of Sulaimaniyah and Halabja and in Nineveh – in the villages on the plains and also south of the city of Kirkuk. They are not open about their beliefs, making them a mysterious and disenfranchised group.
“We believe in all the prophets, just like the Muslims,” he says. “We respect all religions.”
Saleh, 42, says the Kakais often are secretive about their identity. That’s how they’ve survived all these years.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein expelled Kakais because he saw them as Kurds. The dictator leveled Saleh’s family’s houses and took over their lands. Now, he finds himself displaced again. Ironically, adopting a Kurdish identity might now prove helpful given Saleh’s situation.
Before ISIS, Saleh worked at an oil refinery. He was far from rich but at least he had a job. He left all he had when ISIS entered Qaraqosh in August 2014.
He ended up with his wife and eight children in a tent at Baherka camp outside Irbil. When the rains came, the entire family huddled in the toilet to keep warm and dry. Eventually, Saleh managed to get his hands on some cinder blocks and used them to build a small one-room house.
After he heard Iraqi forces had liberated his village, Saleh borrowed a truck and went back to his looted home to salvage what he could. He fetched his old refrigerator, washing machine and some bedding.
“I was afraid to search through my things,” he says. “I know ISIS booby-traps everything. Six people in my village died this way.”
Saleh says he never encountered problems living alongside Muslims, Yazidis and Christians in his village near Qaraqosh. “You can see we all live together here in this camp,” he says.
But the politicians drove a wedge between the people, he says. And then came ISIS.
“They made all my hair gray,” he says, pointing to his head. “They aged us with stress.”
Saleh, like every displaced Iraqi, wants desperately to return home, to send his children back to school. To assume some semblance of normalcy again.
“We are tired of war. Tired of outsiders interfering in Iraq. They create ideas of sectarian differences and we, the people, pay the price,” he says.
“We just want to live with one another. In peace.”