ISIS advances on the Christian towns of northern Iraq have birthed a new militia of Christians arming themselves for battle as the Assyrian Political Party vows to protect and take back Christian towns from Iraq’s latest threat.
TEL SKUF, Iraq — Waesh Toma sits upright and ready, his eyes scanning the Iraqi desert horizon as the cream Toyota pick-up he is perched in – half camouflaged into the sandy background – rumbles along. Toma is a displaced Iraqi Christian, forced from his home when Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants advanced on his town in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. He is not a trained soldier, but he picked up a gun for the first time this month and joined Iraq’s only Christian militia.
The militia, formed by the Assyrian Patriotic Party, a Christian political faction in Iraq, is less than two months old. It was organized in response to ISIS’ fast, effective, and brutal advance into several Christian towns and villages in the north of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Assyrians were displaced within a matter of days, and the vast majority continue to take shelter in camps, public parks, and churches in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Toma’s youthful looks betray a life that has seen more destruction and terror than most his age. Nearly 20, he says he hopes to study at a university in the near future. However, for now, fuelled by a sense of helplessness and the will to gain revenge on the militants that purged him and his family from his home, he has picked up a gun to help the fight against ISIS.
“We don’t have any hope that anyone will save us or protect us,” Toma told MintPress News as he rode toward the now abandoned city of Tel Skuf. “We know we don’t have enough guns or money but our feeling to fight against the Islamic State is strong. They took our cities, killed our families, and we will fight because of this. I am here to fight so that we can live.”
Instead of sleeping in one of the U.N. Refugee Agency tents for internally displaced persons, Toma settles down each night in a makeshift barracks on Iraq’s northern frontline. The barracks, formerly a hospital, has a military-like command center where the elder members of the force – many of whom had previously served in Saddam Hussein’s army – plan out the daily patrol. The sleeping quarters are located upstairs, where around 50 fighters spend their nights, many of them also displaced like Toma.
Reghad Salah Mettir, from the town of Bartella, has also swapped the routine of the IDP camp for the dangers of heading into the mire of war. Fully bearded, Mettir stands with an AK-47 assault rifle slung around his shoulder and proudly wears crisp new fighting attire. He has decided that being part of this force, and facing the dangers that come with it, is better than the life of waiting and hoping that is part and parcel of refugee life.
“All of us are here to stop the Islamic State from taking this place,” Mettir said while pointing at his fellow fighters. “We have come here to fight the Islamic State, and we will fight with the Peshmerga to make them leave Iraq. I want to be here instead of in a camp, in the camp we just sit and wait, but I want to help stop them so that Iraq can be a country for all the people again.”
Each day consists of patrolling several villages on the Mosul Dam frontline, looking out for ISIS explosives that have been planted and keeping a close eye on the militants who lie in wait just a couple of kilometers away.
The militia’s patrol is coordinated in conjunction with Muslim Kurdish Peshmerga activities in the region, who have the ultimate say in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq. However, this system often frays. Eagerness and daring have the militia going into areas that the Peshmerga has forbid them to enter, areas that the Peshmerga forces themselves are wary of, where mortar and sniper fire from ISIS militants is frequent. Mettir told MintPress that he was ready to bring the fight to the Sunni extremists, and that the force wanted to show that they were not willing to just lie down and be punished.
“We are here in Tel Skuf, and we are the only people still here because people are scared to be in the town in case the Islamic State advance,” Mettir said while looking out of binoculars toward the black ISIS flag marking out the nearby position of the militants to the south. “They have fired mortars into this town, and the snipers can reach here also, but we won’t be scared. They have stopped themselves coming here, but if they try and make this town theirs, we will fight them out.”
The spokesperson for the Assyrian Patriotic Party – the political body that set up and manages the volunteer militia force – Henry Sarkis, told MintPress that this was just the first stage of the volunteer force and that many more Christians have come forward to volunteer to pick up a gun and fight. The force would be bigger, and would incorporate all those who want to join the fight, if the APP had more funds to buy the weapons and armor, Sarkis said.
For the men who have made it onto the force, their sense of pride is high. They patrol abandoned streets with precision and under direction from the more senior members, who mentor the several teenagers who are part of the force and who still display the nervous uncertainty of youth despite a cloak of bravado.
Looking out toward the horizon and the scorched Iraqi desert as the sun descended on another day in the deadly Nineveh Plains, Toma told MintPress that although he is scared of what the future may hold for him and his fellow fighters, he is willing to take the risk to help the fight against ISIS. His defiant words, spoken in the face of a formidable enemy with increasing numbers and sophisticated military equipment, met with agreement among the other volunteers around him.
“They [ISIS] are crazy, it is as though they want to die and they will fight until they win or die,” Toma told MintPress. “Our message to the Islamic State is to look up to the sky and ask God to forgive you and come back to the right way. If they don’t do this, then we will fight against them. We have to protect our life, our religion, but also our country – for everyone here, Muslim, Christian, Yazidi – from them. We will also fight until we win.”