Nabilah Abdul Bassih’s mobile phone rings and she breaks away from her conversation to answer. Her brow creases and her voice drops.
Since Nabilah, her husband and her four sons arrived at the Martha Schmouny camp for internally displaced Christians, beside St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil, she has been getting many such calls. The calls are from other people who were displaced by ISIS from the Christian town of Bartalla in the plain of Nineveh in northern Iraq.
Unlike most, the Abdul Bassih family did not get out in time during the mass exodus of Christians. They remained trapped in Bartalla, under virtual house arrest for over a month. It wasn’t until 15 September that they finally made it to Erbil. Initially, they were mobbed with people who had left Bartalla in early August, and then the calls started coming in.
Starving for information on their hometown, or in search of missing loved ones, people contact the Abdul Bassihs because the family, due to its recent arrival in Erbil, is seen to have the latest. “Did you see my house, is it intact?” “Have you seen my son when you were there?” “What have they done to the church?” These and more are the questions Nabilah faces daily. She answers as best she can but her preoccupation now is finding a place for her own family to stay. As all the available space for the displaced in Erbil has been used up, the Abdul Bassihs have had to move into the tent of a neighbor from Bartalla while the bishop finds them a tent for themselves. Until then, 12 people crush into the tent at night to sleep, six from each family.
The phone call ends. Nabilah hangs up and returns to breastfeeding her youngest child, Marvin, 14 months old.
“I feel deep sadness,” she says. “It was our bad luck to get caught in Bartalla with ISIS. It was so difficult.”
At the time, the family was occupied with preparations for the wedding of their eldest, Toni, 24. His wedding was scheduled only a few days later but now it has been postponed indefinitely, until the situation improves. Now is not a time for weddings, Nabilah says.
Tired from the preparations, the entire family went to sleep early on 6 August and woke up the next day to find a town deserted. They understood what had happened and tried to flee but were caught by ISIS and placed under house arrest.
“ ‘Do not leave the house. Do not even open the front door,’ ” Nabilah says, quoting ISIS. “ ‘We will bring you food and drink.’ ”
Food supplements were delivered initially, but after 10 days the food and drink supply simply stopped and the Abdul Bassihs found themselves stranded. Nabilah scraped together meals by cooking whatever food they had in reserve in the house.
“We were praying all the time,” she says, “lighting candles, hoping that God would help us.”
After days and weeks, the family’s prayers were answered, in a sense. Toni spoke to an ISIS member and requested that they be allowed to leave Bartalla for Mosul, as their town was effectively in the middle of a war zone. Before long, the family was issued a document that would ensure their safe passage to Mosul.
Nabilah was obliged, under threat of force, to wear a burqua-like garment called a khimar and the men had to grow full beards before they were allowed take to the road. They made it to Mosul safely and from there, in order to make it out of ISIS-controlled territory and into the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, the family had to pass for Muslims headed to a funeral.
Passing as a Muslim family, the Abdul Bassihs left Mosul and worked their way from checkpoint to checkpoint, explaining that they had a funeral to attend in Kirkuk. Their ruse worked and once across the border in Kurdish areas, the Kurdish forces took care of them and brought them to Erbil.
Interrogations with Kurdish police followed. “How did you manage to get caught there?” “Where did you stay?” “Why didn’t you leave with everybody?” “Did they hurt you?” “What did they do to you?”
As with the displaced Christians, law enforcement agencies are also sorely lacking in new information from ISIS-controlled areas.
For now, the Abdul Bassih family is confronted with many, many questions from many people. But when it comes to their own lives and fate as a family, there are no answers. They sit in the tent they are sharing with their neighbors, a daze still apparent across their faces.
“We have nothing,” Nabilah says. “We plan nothing.”
A Dominican sister of St. Catherine of Siena, Sister Nura, passes by to announce that confessions will be heard that evening in St. Joseph’s Church, followed by prayer.
For now, as with so many of the 120,000 Christians displaced by ISIS, prayer is all the Abdul Bassihs have as they await the end of their painful purgatory. Will they go home or will they have to leave? No one can answer definitively.
Until there are answers, they must wait and pray.
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.