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Opinion: ‘Our children wake up crying in the night… Isis has stolen our lives’

Christian families in Mosul are being given four stark choices: convert to Islam, pay a tax for non-Muslims, leave the city, or have their heads cut off.

Donatella Rovera

MARVIN IS A 27-year-old accountant. His life and that of his family were turned upside down last week, when members of the Islamic State (Isis) turned up at their home in Mosul, northern Iraq.

The Isis militants who now control the city gave Marvin, his elderly parents and his brother and sister four stark choices: convert to Islam, pay jizya (a tax for non-Muslims), leave the city … or have their heads cut off. The militants then painted the Arabic letter “N” (for nasrani or Christian) on the house.

For Marvin’s family, like many other Christian residents of Mosul, there was no choice. They took a few belongings and left the city early the following morning. “On our way out of Mosul, Isis took our money and jewellery. Now we have no means to get out of Iraq and nothing to go back to in Mosul because our lives there have been destroyed,” Marvin told Amnesty International.

In recent weeks, Marvin’s story has become tragically common among Christians and other civilians in Mosul.

Abu Yussef’s family was also similarly forced to leave after they found the letter “N” painted on their house. He and his wife, Hanaa, took their child and a few belongings and fled to Qaraqosh, a mainly Christian town 30 minutes east of Mosul under the control of the Kurdish peshmerga forces which are preventing Isis from advancing further east.

Hanaa was a doctor in a health centre in Mosul before Isis stormed the city. She said: “We left everything behind to save our lives. Our children are now so scared they wake up crying in the night. We want to leave Iraq for the future of our children. Life has become impossible here. All we built has gone and we cannot live our lives again in Mosul. ISIS has stolen our lives.”

Opinion: ‘Our children wake up crying in the night… Isis has stolen our lives’
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  • Displaced Christians

    Displaced Christians who fled the violence in Mosul, pray at Mar Aframa church in the town of Qaraqoush on the outskirts of Mosul on Saturday, July 19, 2014. Iraq was home to an estimated 1 million Christians before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Since then, militants have frequently targeted Christians across the country, bombing their churches and killing clergymen. Under such pressures, many Christians have left the country. Church officials now put the community at around 450,000. (AP Photo)Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Displaced Christians

    A displaced Christian girl who fled the violence in Mosul with her family, in the town of Qaraqoush on the outskirts of Mosul, Saturday, July 19, 2014.Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Displaced Christians

    An empty house of a Christian family in Mosul with Arabic writing that reads, "Long live the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Muslims are happy with the return of Mujahideen. God is Greater". (Saturday, July 19, 2014)Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Displaced Christians

    A newly-arrived displaced Christian boy stands next to his family's relief aid, provided by several agencies, at a church in the town of Hamadaniya, 40 kilometres north of Mosul. Militants have called on the Christians to convert to Islam and have tried to impose their own strict interpretation of Sharia law. Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Displaced Christians

    Newly-arrived displaced Christians wait for relief aid at a church in the town of Hamadaniya, Sunday, July 20, 2014.Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Strict interpretation of Shariah law

    Mannequins with their faces covered are displayed in a shop window in central Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. The Islamic State group ordered clothes shop owners to cover the faces of the mannequins in Mosul, the shop owners said, apparently in line with strict interpretations of Shariah law that forbid statues or artwork depicting the human form.Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Sunni extremists destroy Shiite heritage

    In this undated photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a bulldozer destroys Sunni's Ahmed al-Rifai shrine and tomb in Mahlabiya district outside of Tal Afar, Iraq. Images posted online show that Islamic extremists have destroyed at least 10 ancient shrines and Shiite mosques in territory - the city of Mosul and the town of Tal Afar - they have seized in northern Iraq in recent weeks. Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Sunni extremists destroy Shiite heritage

    A bulldozer destroys Sunni's Ahmed al-Rifai shrine and tomb in Mahlabiya district outside of Tal Afar, Iraq.Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Sunni extremists destroy Shiite heritage

    A bulldozer destroys a monument called "The girl's tomb" in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic extremists have destroyed at least 10 ancient shrines and Shiite mosques in territory.Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Sunni extremists destroy Shiite heritage

    A bicyclist rides by the destroyed old Mosque of The Prophet Jirjis in central Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, July 27, 2014. The revered Muslim shrine was destroyed on Sunday by militants who overran the city in June and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. (AP Photo)Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Sunni extremists destroy Shiite heritage

    People walk on the rubble of the destroyed Mosque of The Prophet Younis, or Jonah, in Mosul. The revered Muslim shrine was destroyed by militants who overran the city in June and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. The fear, anger and sadness was palpable across Mosul on Saturday, July 26, 2014 as rumours made their way across Iraq'’s second-largest city. The militants who had taken over and purged it of some of its most cherished landmarks were eyeing their next target: al-Hadba minaret, an 854-year old tower that leans, like Italy'’s Tower of Pisa – one of the country's most famous structures.(AP Photo, File)Source: AP/Press Association Images

Threats and attacks

For weeks before Christians had been fearing that their future in Mosul would be threatened. When I visited the city two weeks after the Isis takeover on 10 June, threats and attacks against the Christian community were already on the rise. Many had fled, along with members of other religious and ethnic communities.

Many of the city’s residents told me about their fears, though some tried to remain hopeful—partly because the likely prospects were too awful to contemplate. Many argued that Isis had taken advantage of the grievances of the majority Sunni population against the sectarian and repressive rule of the central government but that it could not remain in control of the city and impose its brutal rule on a population of close to two million.

They believed that while Isis’ takeover of Mosul and other areas had not been opposed—and had even been supported –by powerful Sunni tribes and other groups which used to enjoy power as part of the Baath party of the late dictator, Saddam Hussein, these groups would keep Isis at bay. Yet it was clear that life in Mosul was becoming too dangerous for Christians and other non-Sunni communities, as well as for Sunni Muslims opposed to Isis.

Isis militants had taken down a statue of the Virgin Mary from the top of one of Mosul’s churches, a clear sign that worse was to come for the Christian community. As clashes broke out between Mosul-based militants and Kurdish peshmerga on the eastern outskirts of the city on the evening of 25 June, the entire population of the nearby Christian town of Qaraqosh fled in panic.

Some had already fled from Mosul and were sheltering there. It was their second terrifying displacement in two weeks.

In al-Qosh, two hours north of Mosul, Lara, a mother of four young children, told me: “We left Mosul with nothing, thinking it was just for a few days. Now we are fleeing again and I don’t see how we could go back home. I don’t have another home, I don’t have another country. What will the future be for us?”

Extreme brutality

Isis now controls a vast area of north-west Iraq, all the way to and across the Syrian border. And it is replicating in Iraq the extreme brutality of its rule in the parts of Syria it controls.

Its capacity to terrorise the civilian population has been greatly enhanced by the weapons it captured in the areas it took over—weapons supplied in 2003 to the Iraqi central government by the US-led multinational force, which failed to ensure that the mechanisms were in place to avoid such a not-so-unlikely eventuality.

It is now the responsibility of the international community—notably members of the “coalition of the willing” which marched into Iraq without a UN mandate just over a decade ago—to step up to the challenge. They must urgently assist the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been forced from their homes and whose lives have been destroyed.

For people like Marvin, Abu Yussef, Hanaa, Lara and thousands of others, the prospect of surviving without any assistance is just too terrifying to contemplate.

This article was originally published on Open DemocracyDonatella Rovera is Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.

Read: Isis declares a new Islamic state in Iraq

Read: Iran might be helping Iraq to fight Isis by providing military jets

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