By Murcadha O Flaherty and Jaco Klamer
A Christian mother and son in Iraq have told their story of survival after two years of terror living under Daesh (ISIS).
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, widow Jandark Behnam Mansour Nassi, 55, and her son, 16-year-old Ismail, describe their experiences at the hands of Daesh extremists.
Ismail, who the militants jailed, recounts seeing gun-wielding Jihadi children kill orange-clad Daesh prisoners and how he witnessed a woman bound hand and foot being stoned to death. The teenager goes on to describe how Daesh threatened to kill him if he refused to convert to Islam. He recalls the pain of later converting to Islam against his will and how he went to a Daesh “correctional camp” where the Jihadi militants tried to force him to marry in spite of him being only 15 at the time.
When Daesh found the cross he was wearing round his neck, they beat him and he was hit again when he was unable to answer questions while being forced to study the Qur’an. Ismail’s mother was “stung with long needles” for her failure to study the Islamic sacred text.
The climax of their account comes after the two were abandoned by Daesh forces.
They tried to get away but were caught again. When they made a second bid for freedom, they came under Daesh sniper fire. They took cover in a house and when they appeared waving a white flag they were rescued by forces fighting Daesh.
Two months later, mother and son are in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, in northern Iraq, where Aid to the Church in Need is providing pastoral and emergency aid. It is in Erbil that this ACN interview took place.
The account begins with the Daesh invasion of their home village of Bartella, in the Nineveh Plains in August 2014: “My mother and I were at home in Bartella, one of the Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains,” says Ismail. “When we woke up one August morning, the city had been taken by Daesh (ISIS). We tried to get away, but we were robbed by the Jihadists, captured and taken to Mosul.”
“I was very afraid,” says his mother, Jandark, a widow. “Our names were written down, and we had no idea where we were and what would happen to us. We were completely shut off from the outside world. Shortly after, we received permission to return to Bartella, but at a check point we had to convert to Islam and when we refused, they hit us. My son was put in prison. He was only 14 years old.”
“I was put in the prison of Bartella,” confirms Ismail. “One day a Shi‘a [Muslim] was shot right in front of me. The terrorists told me: ‘If you do not convert to Islam, we will shoot you as well’. That is when I converted to Islam. From that time on, we concealed that we were Christians.”
Ismail was released and, with his mother, dragged from pillar to post: from Bartella, to many neighbourhoods in Mosul, and to the small village Bazwaya, very close to Mosul. “We received a paper from Daesh stating that we were Muslims,” continues Ismail. “That way, I could go on the street in Mosul, but on the streets, you could not be sure of your life. Once, I was beaten up because my trousers were too long.”
“Once, when I was going to the mosque with the Jihadists early in the morning, our path was blocked. Suddenly we were passed by men in orange suits, held at gunpoint by a group of Daesh children. The children executed them with pleasure.”
“Another time I ran into a big crowd on the street. There was a woman; her hands and feet were tied. The Daesh terrorists drew a circle around her. If she got out of the circle, she would live, but that was impossible because she was tied. While her relatives were crying and begging for a pardon, the Jihadists threw stones at her until she died.
“Daesh made me go to a correctional camp. I had to grow out my hair and grow my beard. My mother got a black, concealing robe, but was not allowed to go on the streets. Daesh warriors wanted me to marry, so I would be one of them. I objected, stating that I was too young: 15 years. They were not impressed, because even boys of thirteen were married. The terrorists wanted me to join them. They were convinced: ‘Our state will survive everything.’”
“My son was forced by Daesh to practise Islam and I was tortured for not knowing anything about Islam and the Qur’an,” says his mother, Jandark. “Yes, I am embarrassed for having had to profess Islam,” affirms Ismail.
“Daesh warriors made me pray,” says Ismail. “I received a prayer rug on which I could call upon Allah. Men were obligated to pray in the mosque on Friday. Anyone who would walk on the streets during the Friday prayer would be beaten. In the mosque, we were told that Assyrians were evil and that Christians did not believe in the right way. My mother should have to pray at home but she did not pray to Allah.
“Then the Daesh warriors found my necklace with a cross, a sign that I am a Christian. The Jihadists beat me and I had to study the Qur’an for a month. I was hit whenever I could not answer their questions the way they wanted me to, and my mother was stung with long needles because she had not studied anything from the Qur’an.”
“One day we heard that Qaraqosh – another Christian village in the Nineveh plain occupied by Daesh – had been freed, and that the liberation troops had chased the Jihadists out of Bartella. Soon after that, the air attacks on Mosul started, and many people fled. Daesh also fled and, in the hurry, even left some weapons. However, they did take people with them on their way through Mosul, including my mother and me. For three days, we were under the control of a Jihadist.
“When the terrorists grew too busy with the battle, they abandoned us. Again, we heard about the advancing army. We took a taxi to the front, heading towards our freedom, but Jihadists blocked us. Later, we tried to escape again. On our way, we ended up at the front: Daesh snipers tried to shoot us. We ran for cover into a house. After hours of fighting, my mother and I were able to leave the house, waving a white flag. Soldiers of the Iraqi liberation army welcomed us. We were free.”
Aid to the Church in Need has supported the Christian refugees in Erbil and Baghdad with more than £19.6 million since the outbreak of the crisis in August 2014.
Among the most important projects are the food programme for internally displaced people (IDPs) from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, which benefits up to 13,000 families, and a housing scheme for about 1,800 Christian IDPs in Kurdistan.
ACN is appealing for donations to provide ongoing food, heating, clothing and shelter during the winter months.