“We have only 90 rounds for each of our Kalashnikovs and we haven’t the money to buy more ammunition,” says Sergon, commander of a band of two dozen ill-armed Christian militiamen living in the deserted village of Bakufa, close to the Isis frontline. The 1,500 Assyrian Christians who once lived in Bakufa fled when Isis fighters from Mosul 18 miles to the south captured and later lost the village during their offensive last August.
The Isis men are now dug in a mile away from Bakufa. On a field radio we can hear one of the fighters loudly demanding in Arabic that somebody bring him some drinking water. “We also hear them talking in Turkish and English,” says Sergon. “But, going by their accents, we think those speaking English are Chechens and Afghans, who don’t have a common language.”
Power struggle: Isis areas gained and lost
The Christians of Nineveh Plain around Mosul, who lived here for 1,800 years, have become refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey, Lebanon or further afield. “I wish they would come back,” says Peshmerga General Wahid Majid Mohammed, commander of 420 soldiers on this section of the front, somewhat unrealistically. “It is 75 per cent safe here,” he says, which is hardly reassuring, particularly when he adds that there is no electricity or drinking water in Bakufa. As we speak, he twice sends out patrols to assess the damage caused by the latest US air strikes, which take place several times a day.
At one end of the large room where Sergon and his men are sitting with their ageing weaponry, there is a large Assyrian flag. “Once, we Assyrians were a great empire,” says one of the fighters, as if seeking solace in the distant past for present weakness. Aside from their lack of weapons, the militiamen have only one vehicle, no electric generator and depend on the Kurdish Peshmerga for food. Overall, the meagre resources of the so-called Dweekh Newsha militia, 300-strong and founded last August to show that Iraqi Christians can defend themselves, only emphasises their vulnerability in the face of thousands of well-equipped Isis fighters.
Some of these fighters are just down the road and we can see the top of a building in the village of Batnaya, where they are concentrated. General Mohammed, who has spent 23 of his 44 years in the Peshmerga, gives an account of Isis dispositions in Batnaya. He says their forces there are a mixture of foreigners and Iraqis. “The foreigners are about 60-strong and don’t move out of the village much,” he says. “There are about 40 or 50 Iraqi fighters, but they move in and out of Batnaya.”
The general says that most of the foreign fighters come from Arab countries, while the Iraqis are mainly from three powerful Sunni Arab tribes living close to Mosul. The number of Isis men on this section of the front between Mosul and the Kurdish city of Dohuk is variable, as Isis can always bring in reinforcements from Mosul city itself.
Since the fighting during Isis’s offensive last August, there has been near stalemate on this section of the front. The Peshmerga regained Bakufa and Tel Eskoff, a small Assyrian Christian town nearby that was once home to 10,000 people, but is now deserted. Most people here were farmers and the fields are a vivid green after the rains, but nobody is tending them. There are pieces of rusting farm machinery beside the road. But the stalemate is not complete: General Mohammed says that his brother, Colonel Akram Majid Mohammed, also a commander in the Peshmerga, had been killed by a mortar shell at a nearby petrol station in September. There has been no heavy fighting for the past two months though Isis mortar fire and US air strikes happen every day.
Gen Mohammed is sceptical about claims last week by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the US Central Command that an Iraqi Army force of between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers is going to march up the Tigris river, taking Isis-held towns and cities on the way and then capturing Mosul. “They are just statements, the plan is not really credible,” he says and goes on itemise his own lack of heavy equipment and dependence on light infantry arms such as “AKs [Kalashnikovs], PKCs [light machine guns], RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers], two Dushkas [heavy machine guns] and a single 82mm mortar”. The US on Friday admitted it has trained only a fraction of the required troops, despite earlier suggesting the offensive might be as early as April.
On the other hand, Gen Mohammed can contact the US-Kurdish joint operational centre in Irbil with precise coordinates of Isis positions in order to call in US air strikes. He said that earlier that morning his men had heard Isis fighters on their field radios trying to work out if one of their men, who had gone missing, had been killed by US aircraft.
None of this is good news for the Christians. The longer they are away from their old heartlands in and around Mosul, the less likely it is that they will ever return. The houses in Bakufa and Tel Eskoff are intact, but they have all been looted by Peshmerga as well Isis.
“People see their furniture for sale in the markets of Dohuk and Irbil [inside Iraqi Kurdistan] as well as in Isis-held places,” says Johanna Towaya, a Christian community leader from Syrian Catholic town of Qaraqosh on the outskirts of Mosul. He adds that the very last Christian in Mosul left in the past few weeks, driven out by persecution and fear of execution. Like General Mohammed, he is not optimistic about an Iraqi Army counterattack recapturing Mosul: “The Iraqi Army takes some villages and two days later Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for Isis] takes them back.”
One day, though perhaps not for many months, there will be another battle for Mosul and the present frontline running through Bakufa will change. At that time, many of the 1.5 million people remaining in Mosul may themselves become refugees and aid agencies are already preparing to for a mass exodus: Iraq is becoming a land of exiles.