The orphans of Alqosh – Al Jazeera magazine

Story for the January edition of Al Jazeera magazine, available for download for apple here and android here. The conflict in Iraq as seen through the eyes of two children. Photographs by Rawsht Twana for Metrography.

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One evening late this summer people from five villages streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish — like smoke stacks along the flat plains — and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.

Along the highway the convoy came to a stop. Men in camouflage uniforms with dark eyes leaned into the car to check the travellers’ documents. Wissam thought they were from ISIS. He kept quiet and didn’t tell his younger brother he was scared; then he noticed the caps and badges of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and knew they were entering Iraqi Kurdistan. Milad, the younger brother, held his shoes on his lap “I didn’t have time to put them on” he tells me softly.

When I visit the orphanage which is part of the Virgin Mary Monastery three months later, children are milling around on their way to and from the TV room. Milad and Wissam show me where they sleep in a room lined with rows of small chipped beds and a cross slung on the wall.

The boys are shy, polite and eager to please, calmly showing me around. Milad has broad limpid brown eyes and listens intently while we talk. Wissam’s brows are lower and more defined. He prefers to fidget and plays with a nearby camera to keep his hands busy. Their favourite possessions — a Barcelona football shirt for Wissam and the umbrella for Milad — were given to them by the surviving members of their family. When I ask them to recall what happened this summer they don’t remember fleeing the jihadists who came a few kilometres from Alqosh; but they do remember escaping to the home of their aunts, uncles and cousins in Erbil.

When the boys’ parents married in Baghdad, their mother Jamila — which means beautiful in Arabic — wasn’t expecting so many endings. Milad and Wissam were born just after Saddam was ousted as security across the country started to collapse. Explosions targeted churches and Baghdad began haemorrhaging its Christians, many fled north to towns that are now — almost ten years later — under ISIS control.

They moved to Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital where the bombs didn’t reach, but after Milad’s birth there were arguments and the couple stopped getting along — then their father Hani left for good. “He had a tendency to run away from problems at home, he would rather flee.” said the boys’ uncle Amer Solaqa, speaking in his home in Erbil.

Jamila worked as a cleaner in the marbled homes of Kurdish politicians to support the family, before her health started to decline at the end of 2012. She didn’t want her children to see her losing strength so she sent them to the orphanage. In early 2013 Jamila died of breast cancer. When the priests told them what had happened, Milad decided that she must be in heaven; but Wissam was distraught, he cried and was angry.

In the orphanage there is a picture of Jamila, given to the boys’ by their older siblings — who are 18 and 23 and live in Iraqi Kurdistan. Below the fraying edges of the photograph Jamila’s face is round and pale with drawn on brows and tired eyes. Strokes of black hair fall by her face. “It was too painful for them to look at. So I took it from them and show it to them every once in a while,” Father Yousif, who runs the orphanage, tells me as we sit on a large red sofa.

Built into the cliff face above the town is a narrow set of caves that make up the 7th century Assyrian Rabban Hormizd monastery. From up there you can see down to the orphanage where the boys’ lives are made up of school, reading and prayers.

On the narrow streets of Alqosh below the monastery men stand in groups looking out at the grey plains where the fighting is taking place. They can’t see or hear the mortars or rounds but they know they are sharing the same stretch of land under racing skies, and many of them are making furtive plans to leave.

Father Joseph Abdul Saade sighs as we stand in the blustery, manicured courtyard of the church. Milad and Wissam are inside clearing up after a lunch of pounded bulgar with chunks of meat and warm, oily rice. The meal was eaten almost in silence on long trestle tables.

“Safety?” the priest repeats back to me, standing in the wind outside the orphanage, “Feeling is one thing, faith is another. My human feeling is that we are not even fifty percent safe, [ISIS] are 30km away.”

The priests insist their faith protects them, but when they took over Mosul ISIS announced a new Caliphate and an ultimatum was given to Christians in the city to pay a tax, convert or die by the sword.

“Christians here don’t have the faith to stay and live with Muslims in Iraq.” Says Joseph solemnly as the wind picks up. “They want to leave, I prefer them to stay but human logic says it is better to go, for you, for your kids. What will happen to our monastery if we leave? They will destroy it.” In August, he tells me, the priests took 1000 ancient manuscripts to the Kurdish city of Dohuk for safe keeping.

In the main hall of the orphanage paint is peeling from the wall behind an impression of Christ. Budgerigars squawk as Milad passes; he notices his name tacked up on the list of house chores and darts off to help prepare lunch. On Sunday he will put on a flowing white robe and light candles in the Sunday service.

Wissam is not as interested in following the rules as his brother, he tells me shrugging his shoulders with a slight smile. He loves playing football with the other children in Alqosh, or outside his uncle’s house in Erbil where the boys stayed when they fled from ISIS. His uncles and aunts worry about him, he is sensitive, he didn’t cope well with his mother’s death and he holds his feelings inside they say.

When I visited the house in Erbil, which was also hosting other displaced Christian families, Milad was engrossed in computer games. He became animated when a picture of an ISIS fighter flashed up on the laptop screen showing the news of one of the battles, “he thought it was a monster” his uncle Salam Hakeem told me, while his wife Parween put down a plate of dates on the table in front of us.

At the start of November the boys went back to the orphanage — there was no room in the house in Erbil anymore and school in Alqosh was starting again. The Kurdish fighters had pushed ISIS back beyond the town of Tel Skof, 17km away, regaining land lost in early August. US planes started dropping bombs on the militants and morale was higher. Wissam cried when he heard — he had been helping uncle Amer in his tailoring shop, ironing clothes and collecting tips from customers, and he didn’t want to return.

When Salam took the boys back to Alqosh he told me they seemed different. Milad and Wissam bent down to distract two younger orphans who had just arrived — giving them their new toy cars to play with. “When they left the orphanage they were unstable, they didn’t know where they were” he tells me, “but now they seem more mature.” This summer they fled war and ended up as part of a family again, but they still know how it feels to be without parents.

It is evening now in the orphanage and Wissam sits down in his dorm room and takes out colouring pens and pencils. Perhaps thinking of the fighting taking place not far away, he draws a scene that looks not unlike Alqosh with brown crayon hills and two children playing by a well. As one child steps forward, reaching out with cartoon hands, his foot touches the pencil outline of a bomb. In the background his friend screams out to him, his face is contorted with fear, but he is not heard.

Outside the clatter of starlings has died down. Father Yousif, away from his charge’s and the other priests zips up his wind breaker and lights a cigarette, shielding the small flame with his hand. “Last night there was a football match on TV and we began to hear noises from the front line at Bashiga, rockets and explosions” he tells me. “Iraq and Kuwait were playing — the boys love football so we turned the TV up loud to drown out the sound.”

Just after my visit I find out that two more orphans have been taken to Jordan to join their families as refugees. The population is dwindling; those who can escape do, despite church leaders’ calls to stay.

“Where is my mother now?” the younger boy Milad asked his uncle Salam one day earlier this summer, “She is in heaven” he said. Milad paused for a moment, thinking carefully before replying, “Can I go there?”