QARAQOSH, Iraq — This little Christian town in northern Iraq remains a sad, abandoned place more than nine months after the Islamic State was kicked out. Row upon row of houses stand burned and destroyed. The churches are vandalized and blackened with soot. Only a fraction of the population has returned.
But after the first bar was reopened two weeks ago, things have been looking up.
Ya Hala — which means welcome — was once one of eight bars in Qaraqosh, and its return offers one small glimpse of hope for the ancient Christian community uprooted by the Islamic State during its sweep through northern Iraq in August 2014.
Owner Hani Ayoub Yacoub al-Najjar, 63, is hoping the revival of the bar, which he ran for more than 10 years before the Islamic State swept in, will encourage more Christians to return to their homes.
“When people see that there’s a bar open, it means life is going back to normal,” he said, speaking on a recent afternoon at one of the cloth-covered tables dotting the dimly lit bar.
So far, however, most of his customers have been Muslims from the city of Mosul, which was more recently liberated from the harsh rule of the militants. Denied the opportunity to drink during the three years they spent under the Islamic State, many are happy to make the 20 mile journey for the chance to drink at a bar again, he said.
Ahmed Ali Wagaa, 57, was a regular customer before the Islamic State takeover, and now he comes most days after work with a friend to smoke shisha and drink over lunch.
“Sometimes we come during work,” added his friend, Ismail al-Hajabi, 50. “There still aren’t any bars open in Mosul.”
Najjar set about repairing Ya Hala even before his family home, which is too badly damaged to live in, he said. In an act of deliberate vandalism, the Islamic State looted and burned most of the town’s homes, shops and churches, rendering Qaraqosh almost uninhabitable.
The bar got off lightly compared with some of the other buildings, and it appeared to have been used by the Islamic State as some sort of base, he said. There was damage from the fighting, including two holes in the roof probably made by mortars fired during the battle to free the town, and bullet holes in all of the walls.
But the structure was essentially intact. The chairs and tables had been neatly stacked aside, the carpet was rolled back, and a collection of welding and other mechanical equipment was strewn around the concrete floor, leading Najjar to suspect the militants had used it as a factory for making weapons.
Most of his $17,500 stash of liquor and beer had been deliberately smashed, as happened to other stores of alcohol in the town, in keeping with the Islamic State’s strictly enforced ban. But mysteriously, the bottles lining the bar remained untouched, and there was a pile of beer cans belonging to a brand he had never ordered.
“I think the Islamic State was drinking here,” he said. “Maybe. I don’t know for sure.”
At another table, a group of four taxi drivers cursed the Islamic State as they downed beers — at least five each, according to the empty Corona and Tuborg bottles on the table. They had seen their livelihoods collapse since the militants took over and Baghdad imposed harsh restrictions on travel to and from Mosul, measures that have not been lifted even though the city is now liberated. Life in the city still doesn’t feel normal, and drinking at the bar is one of their only escapes, said Saad Mahmoud, 43, whose 12-year-old daughter was paralyzed by mortar fire during the battle to retake Mosul.
“It’s miserable,” he said. “Why do you think we are drinking so much?”
“This is the only place we can come to relax,” said his friend, Omar Saleh Majeed, 34.
Whether a bar will be enough to lure Christians back to the area is in question, however. The ancient Nineveh plains, where Qaraqosh is located, once were home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Assyrians, who date their heritage back hundreds of years before Christianity.
Most of the Islamic State fighters who overran Qaraqosh were Sunni Muslims from surrounding Arab villages that were settled during the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s campaign of Arabization in the area, Christians in the area say. Many fear they may one day revive their insurgency if Iraq’s wider political problems aren’t solved, said Daoud Baba Yacoub, a representative on Nineveh’s provincial council.
“We lost trust in our areas,” said Yacoub, who is pressing the government to give Christians their own autonomous area within Iraq. “They looted and burned our homes, even though their children used to get education in our schools.”
More than half the Christians who fled have already emigrated to the United States and other Western countries after receiving asylum, and many more are waiting for their emigration to be approved, he said. Of over 8,000 households in Qaraqosh, only around 500 have returned.