Why are the Assyrian IDPs not Returning to Tel Kaif
The local Assyrian inhabitants of this ancient Assyrian town were driven out by ISIS on the 6th of August 2014, when the terrorist group took over the town. The Assyrian Christian homes were immediately looted, their churches and cemeteries destroyed, erasing any trace of their existence.
Although the town has been liberated since 19th of January 2017, yet only a handful of Assyrian families have returned to rebuild their homes in Tel Kaif.
Two years have passed since the town was liberated and life is returning to normal. Most of the local Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Turkmens have returned to the town; however, the Assyrians are not returning to resettle in the town. Instead of returning to the town, they are choosing to resettle in the nearby villages that are solely settled by the Assyrians, such as Tel Eqof.
Why one may ask? What are their reservations?
Even prior to ISIS taking over the town – shortly after Saddam was toppled in 2003, Tel Kaif was a problematic area. The town was infested with terrorist breading cells and the native inhabitants of the town, i.e. the Assyrians, were a direct target and had to go on with their daily life with great fears and vigilance. Thus, the social cohesion between the native Assyrian inhabitants and their Muslim neighbours, which had settled in the town, was gradually destroyed and replaced with great distrust.
This was all exacerbated with the coming of ISIS. Few traces of the Assyrian existence remain in Tel Kaif, even their graves have been desecrated.
Just like the other ethno-religious groups that lived in the town, the Assyrians too were anticipating the liberation of Tel Kaif and looking forward to return and rebuild their homes and lives. However, according to our interviews with the Assyrian IDPs from Tel Kaif, who have chosen to remain anonymous, they fear returning to their homes due to the following pertubations:
1. Women and girls from those families that have returned and those that tried to return are being harassed by some of the local Muslim youth. In some cases, the local security forces have been the source of such harassment. This in itself is a huge reason for distrust: the Assyrian women and girls were a direct target of ISIS and such harassment is a sign that ISIS may have been defeated, but ISIS mentality seems to continue to prevail among the local Muslim community.
2. After the liberation of town, the Iraqi government founded a huge Detention Camp (Tasfiraat) in Tel Kaif. According to the Governor of Mosul, the Detention Camp houses around 1800 foreign ISIS fighters (from eighteen different nationalities). The centre is not in the outskirts of the town, but in the town itself and amidst one of the town’s neighbourhoods.
The presence of this Detention Camp, no farther than 10 meters from people’s homes, is a great source of distress and trepidation for the Assyrians. They fear these detained ISIS fighters can easily escape and commit a grave terrorist act. In fact, not even a weak ago: a Russian female ISIS fighter attempted to climb the fence and escape. According to some eye-witnesses, she was almost successful. One Assyrian IDP told us: “if only one of these detainees was to escape, he or she could cause havoc.” He continued by asking us: “How do you expect me to return, how can I feel safe?”
Another legitimate fear concerning this Detention Camp was brought to our attention by another Assyrian IDP: “the presence of this Detention Camp make the whole town a target for ISIS sleeping cells and fighters at large. They could easily drive through the town with improvised explosive vehicles in order to liberated their detained fighters.”
This fear is indeed legitimate if one considers the fact that these detained ISIS fighters are allowed conjugal visits once every two weeks. Every Saturday, their families flood Tel Kaif for these conjugal visits. Thus, ISIS terrorists can easily disguise themselves as family members and plot terrorists acts against the local Assyrians.
3. Since the Detention Camp for ISIS fighters is based in Tel Kaif, the Iraqi government has also placed the Criminal Court dealing with their cases in the town. Thus, according to our reports: this strengthens Assyrian fears, for the obvious reasons, and prevents them from returning to their homes.
There seems to be a collective feeling among the original inhabitants of the town, i.e. the Assyrians, that this Detention Camp and its associated Criminal Court were intentionally placed in Tel Kaif in order to prevent them from returning and rebuilding their homes. They believe this to be part and parcel of a policy aiming to change the demography of the town.
Thus, if we are serious about wanting the Assyrian IDPs to return to their homes and rebuild their lives: it is imperative for the Iraqi government to remove the existing Detention Camp and its associated Criminal Court from Tel Kaif.
Furthermore, there must be major awareness campaigns aimed at the local Muslim communities regarding coexistence and tolerance in order to change the mentality of those with a terrorist mindset. Without this, the Assyrian IDPs may never return to this ancient Assyrian town.