A stop called ‘home’.
It took many years for these people to return home. They were forced to stop over many times, sometimes further, sometimes closer from home. But reaching their destination didn’t mean the end of the journey. The next step to take was to fix damages and to try to get back to normal life.
You got to know the stories of Rafit, Hani, Latif, Sama and Yosouf from our last video ‘Teleskoff – a city rebuilt from the rubble’. Today I would like to add several details that were not included there.
I will start by sketching the situation the characters of this article found themselves in. Teleskoff is located several kilometers from the outskirts of Mosul – the town taken over by ISIS in June 2014. That was where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State. Mosul was under terrorists’ control for more than three years and the fights for its liberation were going on for many months.
A little bit further up north, there are towns of Telkief, Batnaya, Baqofa and Teleskoff. That was also the order in which they were taken over by ISIS. A few-minute drive from Teleskoff there is Alqush, a town rooted in antiquity. Alqush escaped the fate of those other towns and became a safe haven for thousands fleeing from the entire region. I will write about Alqush more in the next article.
Out of all places mentioned above, Teleskoff was occupied for the shortest period of time. It was liberated after more than two weeks, but the terrorists completely ruined it. The counteroffensive stopped at the outskirts of Teleskoff and from then on for two years the town served as the main headquarter of the Kurdish forces (called Peshmerga) and Christian self-defense units. In May 2016, ISIS attempted to take over the city again, but this time the invader was stopped. The plan to retake Mosul was prepared in Teleskoff, and military operation aimed at finishing ISIS rule was launched from there as well. Its residents were forced to find temporary homes not knowing if they would ever be able to return. And if there would be anything left to return to.
Rafit – a hydraulic workshop
Like in the movie, I will start with Rafit – a plumber who apart from fixing water installations has a ‘do-it-yourself’ talent as well. After fleeing Teleskoff, Rafit and his wife went up north, to the neighborhood of Zakho by the border with Turkey. They spent several days over there and decided to move a bit closer to their native town. Noone knew if ISIS was going to be stopped and if terrorists would take over more territories. Everyone hoped that it was a temporary situation. The authorities were not ready to give shelter to such a large number of people. We are talking here about a few hundred thousand of people who from day to day were forced to flee occupied towns and villages. Everyone was looking for a solution on their own.
The next stop on the journey of Rafit and his wife was the Banduaya village near Alqush. They spent nearly two years over there. When the Mosul offensive was launched, Rafit and several of his fellows volunteered to go to Teleskoff together with the Peshmerga soldiers (the Kurdish armed forces). They wanted to see how the city on the frontline looked like. ISIS was tormenting the forces based in Teleskoff with mortar and rocket attacks, while suicide bombers would often sneak in to blow up military checkpoints. Unlike hundreds of burned down and blown buildings, Rafit’s house survived. But just like all others, it was robbed of all equipment, including furniture. Rafit didn’t break down because of it and wanted to return as soon as possible. But he had to wait to receive the military’s permission. After the offensive was launched, it started searching the buildings for unexploded bombs from the fighting period.
A plumber Rafit learnt his profession from his father. Since he was a little boy, he was helping in his workshop which he later inherited. Apart from that, he discovered he was gifted in ‘do-it-yourself’ works. When we visited him, he proudly showcased his latest piece of work. His friend asked if he could make a barbecue for him. Not an ordinary one, but a real masterpiece of barbecue technology. A folding tabletop for food preparation, an electric blower and air circulation system were only some elements of that sophisticated construction. He was very proud of it and very rightly so. Maybe it will sound prosaic to write about a barbecue among stories of ISIS atrocities and thousands of their victims that were forced to flee. But there is something I can’t express with words or pictures, namely the passion and resourcefulness which I could read between the lines when speaking with Rafit. We can say that we invested in his development and now we can see that it was a very good investment. Rafit needed help only at the beginning to be able to keep going on his own. As he put it, “it’s like you gave new legs to someone who couldn’t walk”. I think it’s a good summary.
Hani – home appliances service
Hani is a similar case. I told his story in the previous article. I wrote that under Saddam Hussein, he was offered a job with Iraq’s nuclear program. Today he is retired, although his retirement is more like a handout. After serving his country for years as an engineer, every two months he now receives an equivalence of 800 PLN (less than 200 USD). He is forced to continue working. Luckily, he has skills that make it possible. He learnt from his son how to fix home appliances such as washing machines and fridges. He can also fix electric equipment and entire installations. Apart from that, he is a deacon in the Saint George Church in Teleskoff.
He works with his son so it can be said that their workshop is a family business. There are many such small businesses in Iraq. The tradition of passing a profession from one generation to the other still lives there. In this case, it’s the other way around, but the family business idea has remained.
Latif – a grocery store
Latif’s case is different. He comes from Batnaya which was occupied by ISIS from half 2014 till the end of 2016. The destruction left was massive. The city located around one kilometer away from Teleskoff was practically razed to the ground. It was the furthest ISIS pocket in the region. Several years earlier, Latif’s sister’s husband was murdered by fundamentalists from Al-Qaeda which later morphed into the so-called Islamic State. As soon as they found out about the atrocities that ISIS was carrying out in Mosul at the time, they had no doubts they had to flee immediately. They settled in Seje village near Dahuk, a place that became a shelter for many families from the occupied Nineveh region.
In 2017 they came to Teleskoff. For Latif’s family the town became a stopover on the way back home. But things became complicated. A plan to rebuild Batnaya didn’t exist yet, even though three years had passed since liberation. For more than a year since his arrival in Teleskoff, Latif was planning to visit his family house and see what was left of it. I will add that it is merely a five-minute drive. But unexploded bombs and booby traps left by ISIS in Batnaya were preventing him from taking that trip. He finally decided to go, just to find only rubble.
Before ISIS invasion, Latif was a taxi driver. In Iraq , where in most places there is no public transport, taxis are the only means of transport between towns. Latif’s taxi allowed the family to flee from ISIS. Unfortunately, after many years the car broke down and Latif couldn’t afford to fix it. We couldn’t help him with that, but we opened a small grocery store for him. It doesn’t bring in large revenues, but it’s enough to provide for the family. Latif tries to stay optimistic, but during our conversation one could feel that he is slowly starting to lose hope. Many stars have to align for his entire family to go back to their beloved home. Will it ever happen? We don’t know.
Sama and Yosouf – a bookshop
These two young people immediately gained my trust. At the beginning I didn’t know why, but I liked them from the get-go. They were different. Smiling, friendly and full of life. When asking about their stories, their escape from ISIS and their fate during the war I realized how much they went through. Sama said that when she heard explosions in Mosul she knew ISIS would soon arrive. She most probably knew what the jihadists were doing with women. Her entire family fled immediately. Later on, they changed their place of residence several times to finally settle down in a small village a few kilometers away from Qaraqosh. She wanted to continue her studies. There was a branch of her university in Kirkuk which was liberated before Mosul. So her dream became true before her family could go back home.
Yosouf used to live in Teleskoff, but was going to the same university as Sama. His family moved several times and finally settled down in northern Iraq, but he went to Kirkuk to finish his studies. That was where he met Sama. It was love at first sight. They chose Teleskoff, Yosouf’s native town, for their place to settle down (Yosouf comes from the An-Anbar province, but he has been in living in Teleskoff since he was two).
They both love reading and wanted to open a little bookshop. With our help, their dream became true. Their cosy bookshop where one can have a cup of coffee, talk about books and spend some good time, is extraordinary, probably the only such place in town. Additionally, Sama expresses herself artistically designing bookmarks. She is very good at it. We spent quite a long time in their bookshop, it’s a place you don’t want to leave. Even now I can’t wait to visit Sama and Yosouf again.
These stories, although presented here in a nutshell, show many sides of the same event. Each character of this article looks into the future differently. Noone knows what tomorrow will bring. How will their post-ISIS lives look like? We can only hope that the worst is behind them and peace will remain in Teleskoff for good.
Author: Dawid Czyż