Try­ing to lure Iraqis home — one shot at a time

In a Chris­tian town de­stroyed by the Is­lamic State, things have been look­ing up since a long­time bar owner re­opened his place

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LIZ SLY AND AASO AMIN SHWAN liz.sly@wash­post.com

qaraqosh, iraq — This lit­tle Chris­tian town in north­ern Iraq re­mains a sad, aban­doned place more than nine months af­ter the Is­lamic State was kicked out. Row upon row of houses stand burned and de­stroyed. The churches are van­dal­ized and black­ened with soot. Only a small frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has re­turned.

But af­ter the first bar was re­opened two weeks ago, things have been look­ing up.

Ya Hala — which means wel­come — was once one of eight bars in Qaraqosh, and its re­turn of­fers one small glimpse of hope for the an­cient Chris­tian com­mu­nity up­rooted by the Is­lamic State dur­ing its sweep through north­ern Iraq in Au­gust 2014.

Owner Hani Ay­oub Ya­coub al-Na­j­jar, 63, is hop­ing the re­vival of the bar, which he ran for more than 10 years be­fore the Is­lamic State swept in, will en­cour­age more Chris­tians to re­turn to their homes.

“When peo­ple see that there’s a bar open, it means life is go­ing back to nor­mal,” he said, speak­ing on a re­cent af­ter­noon at one of the cloth-cov­ered ta­bles dot­ting the dimly lit bar.

So far, how­ever, most of his cus­tomers have been Mus­lims from the city of Mosul, which was more re­cently lib­er­ated from the harsh rule of the mil­i­tants. De­nied the op­por­tu­nity to drink dur­ing the three years they spent un­der the Is­lamic State, many are happy to make the 20-mile jour­ney for the chance to drink at a bar again, he said.

Ahmed Ali Wa­gaa, 57, was a reg­u­lar cus­tomer be­fore the Is­lamic State takeover, and now he comes most days af­ter work with a friend to smoke shisha and drink over lunch.

“Some­times we come dur­ing work,” added his friend, Is­mail al-Ha­jabi, 50. “There still aren’t any bars open in Mosul.”

Na­j­jar set about re­pair­ing Ya Hala even be­fore his fam­ily home, which is too badly dam­aged to live in, he said. In an act of de­lib­er­ate van­dal­ism, the Is­lamic State looted and burned most of the town’s homes, shops and churches, ren­der­ing Qaraqosh al­most un­in­hab­it­able.

The bar got off lightly, com­pared with some of the other build­ings, and it ap­peared to have been used by the Is­lamic State as some sort of base, he said.

Dam­age from the fight­ing in­cludes two holes in the roof, prob­a­bly made by mor­tars fired dur­ing the bat­tle to free the town, and bul­let holes in all the walls.

But the struc­ture was es­sen­tially in­tact. The chairs and ta­bles had been neatly stacked aside, the car­pet was rolled back, and weld­ing and other me­chan­i­cal equip­ment was strewn around the con­crete floor, lead­ing Na­j­jar to sus­pect that the mil­i­tants had used it as a fac­tory for mak­ing weapons.

Most of his $17,500 stash of liquor and beer had been de­lib­er­ately smashed, as hap­pened to other stores of al­co­hol in the town, in keep­ing with the Is­lamic State’s strictly en­forced ban. But mys­te­ri­ously, the bot­tles lin­ing the bar re­mained un­touched, and there was a pile of beer cans be­long­ing to a brand he had never or­dered.

“I think the Is­lamic State was drink­ing here,” he said. “Maybe. I don’t know for sure.”

At an­other ta­ble, a group of four taxi driv­ers cursed the Is­lamic State as they downed beers — at least five each, ac­cord­ing to the empty Corona and Tuborg bot­tles on the ta­ble.

They had seen their liveli­hoods col­lapse since the mil­i­tants took over and Bagh­dad im­posed harsh re­stric­tions on travel to and from Mosul, mea­sures that have not been lifted even though the city is now lib­er­ated.

Life in the city still doesn’t feel nor­mal, and drink­ing at the bar is one of their only es­capes, said Saad Mah­moud, 43, whose 12year-old daugh­ter was par­a­lyzed by mor­tar fire dur­ing the bat­tle to re­take Mosul.

“It’s mis­er­able,” he said. “Why do you think we are drink­ing so much?”

“This is the only place we can come to re­lax,” said his friend, Omar Saleh Ma­jeed, 34.

Whether a bar will be enough to lure Chris­tians back to the area is in ques­tion, how­ever. The an­cient Nin­eveh plains, where Qaraqosh is lo­cated, once were home to one of the old­est Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties in the world, the Assyr­i­ans, who date their her­itage back hun­dreds of years be­fore Chris­tian­ity.

Most of the Is­lamic State fight­ers who over­ran Qaraqosh were Sunni Mus­lims from sur­round­ing Arab vil­lages that were set­tled dur­ing for­mer dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein’s cam­paign of Ara­biza­tion, Chris­tians in the area say. Many fear they may one day re­vive their in­sur­gency if Iraq’s wider po­lit­i­cal prob­lems aren’t solved, said Daoud Baba Ya­coub, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Nin­eveh’s pro­vin­cial coun­cil.

“We lost trust in our ar­eas,” said Ya­coub, who is press­ing the govern­ment to give Chris­tians their own au­ton­o­mous area within Iraq. “They looted and burned our homes, even though their chil­dren used to get education in our schools.”

More than half the Chris­tians who fled have em­i­grated to the United States and other Western coun­tries af­ter re­ceiv­ing asy­lum, and many more are wait­ing for their em­i­gra­tion to be ap­proved, he said. Of over 8,000 house­holds in Qaraqosh, only about 500 have re­turned.

“It’s mis­er­able. Why do you think we are drink­ing so much?” Saad Mah­moud, a res­i­dent of Qaraqosh who fre­quents the bar

PHO­TOS BY THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS

Ya Hala, which means wel­come, was once one of eight bars in Qaraqosh, a 20-mile jour­ney from Mosul. Owner Hani Ay­oub Ya­coub al-Na­j­jar re­built the bar be­fore his house.

Pa­trons can en­joy food, drinks and a smoke at Ya Hala. Whether a bar will be enough to bring Chris­tians back to the an­cient Nin­eveh plains is in ques­tion, how­ever. Many have em­i­grated to the West.

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