The small northern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, with a population of 60,000, 99% of whom are Catholic, woke up nine years ago on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, to the sound of indiscriminate mortar shells that fell on houses. Three people were killed: 32-year-old Inaam Ishua Boulis, 5-year-old David Adeeb Elias Shmeis, and 9-year-old Milad Mazen Elias Shmeis.

The fall of Mosul, the center of the Nineveh Governorate and the second-largest city in Iraq, occurred roughly two months earlier, on June 10, 2014, after the terrorist organization ISIS swept through the town. By Aug. 6, ISIS would reach the town of Qaraqosh, 20 miles southeast of Mosul. 

Given the deadline of July 19, 2014, Christians had to choose between converting to Islam or the covenant of dhimma, a tax paid by non-Muslims in exchange for a small amount of protection under Sharia law, or they were forced to leave the city — and if they refused, to face the sword. 

As a result, nearly all Christians fled the city and began journeying for safety through the Nineveh Plain, creating a ripple of fear and anticipation throughout the villages and towns of the plain as they fled.

Qaraqosh attacked

When the shelling began, 5-year-old David Shmeis died instantly. According to his mother, Duha Sabah Abdullah, his body parts were so scattered that they only found parts of his head and legs. 

His 9-year-old cousin Milad was also among the victims who died in the blast. 

The shelling did not stop that day, as eyewitness Nimrod Qasha explained, adding that after the funeral and burial ceremonies for the dead ended, the movement of displacement began. 

Qasha and many others believed that similar to events on June 26, when inhabitants fled and returned a few days later, the city would evacuate and return after a short time. 

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Abdullah confirmed that the sounds of shelling did not stop during the burial ceremonies. Disrupted by a midnight warning call from a friend of her husband in Mosul, Abdullah was warned that ISIS was close to storming Qaraqosh. Abdullah and her family left after hanging up the phone. Those that fled Mosul had already shared news of the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yazidis when it invaded Sinjar and the area on Aug. 3. The U.S. and others would ultimately declare what happened to the Yazidis to be genocide.

The memorial card featuring David Abdullah, a child killed by ISIS in 2014 in Qaraqosh, and his mother, Duha Abdullah, speaking to Pope Francis in March 2021. Photo credit: Raghed Ninwaya/ACI MENA
The memorial card featuring David Abdullah, a child killed by ISIS in 2014 in Qaraqosh, and his mother, Duha Abdullah, speaking to Pope Francis in March 2021. Photo credit: Raghed Ninwaya/ACI MENA

The fall of Qaraqosh

“On the morning of Aug. 7, there was no longer room for doubt that Qaraqosh, Karamlis, and Bartella had all fallen into the hands of ISIS,” Qasha confirmed, adding that the sounds of bullets that accompanied the advance of terrorist elements were deafening.

With the early hours of dawn came news of the infiltration of ISIS fighters into the town’s fields and the withdrawal of the military units assigned to protect it, according to Qasha. The main street leading to Erbil was crowded with displaced people. No vehicles were available to transport the town’s 60,000 residents. 

Only some infirm and elderly remained in Qaraqosh because they could not leave.

Abdullah could not describe her feelings as she left her town, leaving her son’s grave right after she buried him: “My eyes did not stop shedding tears on the roads to Erbil, and black thoughts were thrown at me, and I was afraid that they would exhume or desecrate the grave,” she said.

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Qasha explained that the roads leading to Erbil and Dohuk, larger cities with Christian strongholds inside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, were filled with crowds. Tens of thousands of Christians fleeing Christian villages and towns waited for hours to cross the Kurdistan region’s checkpoints in search of safety in Erbil.

Abdullah recounted the harsh conditions they lived through during the period of displacement. During that time, they resided in a school-turned-IDP camp in Erbil, which ultimately absorbed the weight of the IDPs in the Nineveh Plain. Her family shared one classroom with six other families, the cramped quarters exacerbating the psychological difficulty of displacement.

Ultimately, the family sought refuge in France but demanded that they be returned to their homeland after the liberation of Qaraqosh so that Abdullah could be assured that the grave of her murdered son was respected. 

A moment of redemption for Qaraqosh

On March 7, 2021, during his apostolic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus with Christians in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh.

“Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word. The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death,” Pope Francis said

“Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.”

Seven years after the death of her son, Abdullah presented her testimony before the pope during his historic visit to the church. She recounted the story of the murder of her child, his cousin, and their young neighbor who was preparing for marriage in the light of the faith and hope that had molded her understanding of their deaths in the years since the attack and fall of the city.

“We as Christians believe strongly that we are always martyrdom projects,” Abdullah told the pope, highlighting that “the martyrdom of these three angels was a clear sign for us, and if it weren’t for them, the people would have stayed in Qaraqosh and would have definitely fallen into the grip of ISIS.”

“Their lives saved the whole city,” she stressed, concluding with a note of hope: “Our strength inevitably comes from our belief in the resurrection, our clinging to hope, and our belief that our children are in heaven in the bosom of the Lord Jesus.”

Pope Francis said that Doha Sabah Abdallah’s words on forgiveness touched him deeply.

“The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up,” Pope Francis said. “You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity.”