In Iraq’s Ninewa plains, UNDP is rehabilitating 2,100 houses destroyed during the ISIL conflict. Six families share their stories about their return home.
Khadar, Dunnia and their grandson Khadar pose for a picture in their rose garden. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
Khadar, 53 and wife Dunnia, 44
“We spent one year in that house, without furniture or anything.”
Yazidis Khadar and Dunnia tell their story frankly, and with passion. Dunnia recalls the horrors she experienced and the long, arduous journey out of Bashiqa, walking and hitchhiking with her family for nine hours to escape the Islamic State (ISIL), also known as Daesh.
“When we returned home, everything was burnt. Nothing was left. The house was full of soil, because Daesh excavated tunnels to make their tunnel network. For one week, we all slept on the soil — the whole family,” she says. Khadar adds: “The work UNDP did was like a dream for us. If only you had seen the house before.”
Left to right: Najat and Butrus stand with their children and granddaughters inside their rehabilitated home. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
Butrus, 56, and family
“If you had not responded to our requests, we could have never finished our home.”
Butrus’ house is a hive of activity. His lives his with wife, two sons, their wives and two grandchildren. Butrus recalls the moment he and his family fled — all eight of them in one car. When they reached Zahko near Duhok, they stayed in a community hall for a month, sleeping on the floor with other Christian families, as well as some Yazidis who fled Bartela. When it was safe to return home, they kept their expectations low. “We thought our house was going to be completely demolished. We did not have any hope,” he says. “But when we came back and we saw that the house was only burnt, we thanked God. UNDP gave us hope.”
Mohammed*, 10, proudly displays a drawing of his house. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
“We felt fear. Fear for our children.”
Sinam, along with her two sisters-in-law, their husbands, and their 12 children live together in one house. When the families fled to the south of Iraq in November 2014, the children were asking questions about why they were leaving in such a hurry. Sinam told them it was for safety. Like many other families, the kids missed school and the adults found it difficult to work. “We are happy to be back home, trying to live a normal life again with our families.”
Qays sits with his three children, Jasim, Najis and Zakaria, plus his niece and nephew. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
“When we left, we never thought we were coming back. We thought it was the end.”
Qays’ story is a familiar one. When he heard ISIL was approaching, he gathered his family and drove south to Hillah, along with many other Shabaks living in Bartela. “We left everything here. We escaped with only the clothes on our back.”
For three years, they lived away from home, seeking refuge with strangers. The children missed out on school, and Qays could not find work, so living day-to-day was a struggle. They had lost hope, until May 2017 when they returned. Upon arriving home, Qays found everything had been stolen, and the house had been torched. “When I walked into the house, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would look that bad. Without UNDP’s help, it would’ve been impossible to live here.”
Ismail stands in front of his drawings in his bedroom. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
“The hardest part was watching my mother get beaten.”
Ismail’s story will haunt you. At 14, he was captured by ISIL, along with his mother, and held under the most horrific circumstances. As Christians, they were forced to convert to Islam and were tortured if they did not adhere to the religious practices dictated by ISIL. Ismail was trained by ISIL to fight and was put through a brutal military training regime.
Ismail tells his story blankly, expressing almost no emotion; his trauma is clear. To channel his frustration, Ismail draws, and his bedroom is adorned with his portraits of people he met over the two years he was captured. His mother Jandark suffers from epilepsy and a mental illness, leaving Ismail to work 12-hour shifts at a local restaurant for 10,000 dinars (US$8.40) per day. At least, they no longer have to worry about keeping a roof over their heads.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Narayen outside her home in Bartela. © UNDP Iraq | Claire Thomas
“I’m so thankful for the head-start.”
Narayan lost her husband to cancer about 12 years ago, leaving her with two young sons, now teenagers. ISIL destroyed almost everything she had — except, miraculously, a framed portrait of her husband, which at the time was wedged behind a dresser. It is displayed proudly in her sister-in-law’s home, where she currently lives.
UNDP has rehabilitated Naryan’s house, but she can’t move in yet — the debris next door is making it impossible for electricity and water to function in her own home. But she is hopeful. “I’m so thankful for the head-start UNDP has given me,” she says.