A few months ago, I was able to go into one of the cities held by ISIS for two years in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.
It took a complex set of negotiations to get in and pass through about five checkpoints held by different groups. There was an Iraqi Army checkpoint. There was a Peshmerga checkpoint. Then there were three various Christian militia checkpoints, including the militia who held the town.
Once in the city, the devastation left behind by the ISIS fighters was clear.
Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.
But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.
The Christian communities in this part of Iraq have histories dating back to the first century. Many of the Chaldeans speak Syriac, an ancient language similar to Aramaic.
Now their churches, formerly filled with marble and glass, are in ruins.
Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.
Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.
The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.
The ISIS fighters apparently used this church courtyard for target practice. Its floor was littered with bullet casings and store mannequins stood in as targets.
On the way out, we stopped at a monastery. It caught our eye because ISIS had removed the ornate wrought iron cross from the dome of the monastery and dragged it up the hill behind.
When Christian militia retook the monastery earlier this year, they put up a simple wooden cross on the hill overlooking the site.
Inside the monastery, the militia soldiers now guarding the building showed us the escape tunnels ISIS fighter had dug into the building and its grounds.
One of the men motioned me into the tunnel, and I followed him in the winding darkness along the tunnel floor.
We came up to a metal door, which led into the monastery. Then we turned and went another way, and we popped out on the other side of the hill, looking toward Mosul itself. We could hear the sound of the bomber jets overhead, as the Iraqi army battled ISIS for control of the city.
Today, ISIS is nearly driven out of Mosul, and some of those who were driven out of their homes are planning to return. There’s little to return to, though. No water or electricity. No businesses or schools. Empty husks of homes, stripped of anything of value.
I don’t know how this story ends. But I hope that it some day comes to restoration.