The Nativity scene and Christmas tree are in place on the corner of the street. Some of the children proudly wear red Santa Claus hats or show off new toys, mostly plastic guns for small boys. Windows and balconies are festooned with colorful balloons. It is unmistakably Christmas on Friday at the Ankawa camp, home to thousands of Iraqi Christians who have been displaced since the Islamic State group seized their towns and villages in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq in 2014.
But the holiday spirit is tinged with a mix of homesickness and despair. They still can’t go home even though their towns and villages have been wrested back from the militants by Iraqi forces. The towns are too devastated, with no water or electricity. The Christians are also haunted by memories of their flight under cover of darkness to escape the IS onslaught.
“I just want to go home,” said a tearful 79-year-old Victoria Behman Akouma. She was among a handful who briefly stayed behind after IS seized her town of Karamlis in August 2014. “They asked me to convert to Islam, but I told them I will die a Christian and that they can kill me if they want to,” she said.
After 11 days under IS rule, the militants escorted her to the border of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The Christians of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, were once members of an ancient but still vibrant Christian community in Iraq. They enjoyed protection and near equal rights with Iraq’s Muslim majority under Saddam Hussein, but their numbers rapidly dwindled after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled the regime of the late dictator in 2003, ushering in the rise of religious militancy with the al-Qaida terror network taking the lead.