BEIRUT — Despite the war, 53-year-old Syrian Khami Haydo was obstinately clinging to her dream to "stay on my land."
She thought her only son was safe with her in the village of Tall Nasri, in northeastern Syria, after he dropped his studies at the University of Aleppo because of the fighting. An Assyrian Christian, she didn't want to concern herself with politics or be influenced by the threats.
"ISIS was occupying the mountain south of our villages," she says. "But we felt protected by the Khabur River that was separating us from them, and by the Kurdish and Christian militias in the area."
But in the wee hours between Feb. 22 and 23, her plan fell apart. First, there were "bombings, getting louder and louder," she recalls from the Saint George Assyrian Church in Beirut's eastern suburbs, where she fled in early March. Then came the "militiamen's orders" to the people living along the Khabur River to leave because ISIS jihadists were marching forward. Leaving everything behind, Khami Haydo took refuge with her sick husband and her son in the neighboring town of Al-Hassakah. There, she learned that Sunni extremists had abducted one of her cousins and the rest of her family back in her home village.
In just a few days, ISIS kidnapped almost 220 Assyrian Christians in the Khabur valley. About 20 of them were released in exchange for a ransom. "The abductors can make all the claims they want, but they should release our loved ones," says Khami Haydo, who is still in a state of shock.
ISIS knew that attacking Christians would provoke Western outrage. The assault took place two days after an offensive from the Kurdish People's Protection Units against the jihadists. The villages in the Khabur valley occupy a strategic position close to Turkey and Iraq, on the road from Aleppo to Mosul.
The ISIS attacks mark a turning point. "It’s the first time since 2011 [when the Syrian uprising began] that our region has been affected," says 35-year-old Syrian Roland Icho, who fled with his children. "I didn't see the assailants' faces. I can't be certain they were from ISIS. But these raids are in keeping with what the jihadists have been inflicting on minorities in Iraq since last summer, reducing Yazidi people to slavery, submitting Christians from Mosul to their law and forcing them to flee."
Fear of mass murder
All Syrians are in danger, Icho says, and Christians feel threatened by extermination in Syria and Iraq. This storekeeper swears he will never again set foot in his home country.
ISIS militants parade through the Syrian city of Raqqa on June 30, 2014, after they take it over — Photo: Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA
The fate of the hostages is still unknown to this day, but fear of mass extermination haunts everyone, especially after ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. The latest ISIS assault is forcing Christians to exile, once again. The Iraq villages where survivors settled after the 1933 anti-Christian massacre of Simele are empty now. Many thousands of Assyrians have fled to Al-Hasakah, the Syrian region's capital.
Some 15 families have been taking refuge in Lebanon since early March. A small Assyrian community now calls this home, and more are expected to arrive. Beirut closed its borders to Syrian refugees in January, but it has made an exception for the Assyrians and has been granting them short-term visas.
To cross the Lebanese border, Roland Icho showed a baptism certificate. His journey took him to Qamishli, where he boarded a plane to Damascus with his family before making for Beirut by road. Since he left, his Syrian village of Tall Tamer has been at the heart of violent fighting between Kurdish militiamen and ISIS jihadists. The Assyrian refugees in Lebanon don't want to talk about it, but Christian militiamen are also fighting with the Kurds to defend their villages. "Since a little more than a year ago, when ISIS grew in power and took control of Raqqa [southwest of Al-Hassakah], self-defense groups were created to protect our houses," Icho says.
At that time, there was already an influx of Christians scared by ISIS expansion, coming from northeastern Syria to Lebanon, says Monsignor Yatroun Coliana, an Assyrian religious dignitary. In the Saint George Church, together with other Syrian priests, he tries to help the displaced who lack everything. But most of the refugees want to see Beirut only as a way station before going to Europe or America. In the past year, dozens of families have left for the West. Others live sparingly in small buildings near the church, waiting to emigrate.
Young Chaldean Iraqis are also attending the Assyrian school. Indeed, the exodus of Iraqi Christians heightened after ISIS took Mosul in June 2014. Baghdad native Rafa el-Nawfali is 35, though she looks much older. Since the chaos created by the U.S. invasion of her country in 2003, her life has been a never-ending struggle: Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon. She cries when she talks of her "destroyed country." She doesn't know either whether she'll stay in the Middle East. "ISIS people have no religion," she says. "They eradicate other people, people who are different, whether they're Christians or Muslims."
Monsignor Coliana would like to keep these Christians in Lebanon, but he can't. "For them to stay, they need to be helped, to feel protected," he explains. "Not a single Western embassy in Beirut came to ask us what the Assyrians needed. The West support the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, so why don't they do the same for the Christians?"