“For everyone to know that we are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we are coming – God willing,” says Ben Balata.
Our Kurdish fixer is translating graffiti sprayed in black on a wall in Batnaya, near to the Iraqi city of Mosul.
This town has been decimated by war. The streets are in ruin, there
are bombed buildings everywhere, and most homes have been reduced to
piles of concrete rubble.
Batnaya is a ghost town.
Across from the bullet-marked wall where ISIS
daubed its threat, sits the burned-out wreck of a car – rusting metal
that was likely used in a suicide attack. A door of a home behind the
grotesque vehicle is ajar.
It displays a white cross, signifying Batnaya’s Christian religious
denomination, and as we walk through the carnage our armed guides,
Kurdish fighters, talk about the battle to take back Batnaya from ISIS.
I was with three others in an American humvee when we attacked the
town. We were among the first in. Snipers started firing at us. I saw a
car driven towards us…and then it exploded,” says Captain Ayob of the Peshmerga (which means ‘those who face death’).
He suffered an eye injury in the suicide attack but remarkably all
four soldiers survived the explosion, allowing them to help comrades to
chase the Islamist terror group from Batnaya, who’d occupied the town
for more than one year.
After taking control of Mosul in 2014 – where ISIS is currently
battling Iraqi forces – the terror group swept across an area to the
north and east of the city called the Nineveh Plains, taking over dozens of rural towns and villages – Christian, Yazidi, Muslim and some of mixed religious denomination.
Tens of thousands of people fled terrified. The invasion chimed with ISIS’s massacre of
at least 5000 Yazidis in Sinjar, where they also raped and abducted
hundreds of Yazidi women. Most Christians fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the
self-autonomous region of Iraq controlled by the Kurds.
The Yazidis were targeted because of their faith, as was Batnaya, a peaceful Christian town almost razed to the ground.
The destruction wreaked by ISIS is jaw dropping. Around 80 per cent
of the town has been wrecked and no-one has been able to return their
Much of the devastation happened during the day-long Battle of
Batnaya – between ISIS and the Peshmerga, backed by the Iraqis – but the
terror group enacted a policy of scorched earth before retreating to
Mosul, the self-proclaimed capital of its so-called Caliphate.
We obtained permission to visit Batnaya from the Peshmerga, who’ve
controlled the town since defeating ISIS on the 20th October last year.
At the Peshmerga’s makeshift HQ in the town, we meet with the Kurdish
Colonel now in charge, Kareem Farho, who says his forces routed ISIS
from Batnaya in just one day.
“We could have advanced all the way to Mosul but our order was to stay here,” he adds.
Colonel Farho – who has 26 years service in the military – says that
ISIS took control of Batnaya on the 3rd August 2014. During that period
they invaded at least another 10 places in this locality. Before then,
around 5000 people lived in Batnaya but the whole population escaped
before ISIS arrived.
The battle to liberate Batnaya chimed with the offensive to rid Mosul
of ISIS last October, in collaboration with Iraqi forces. There were
more than 100 ISIS fighters in the town. Around 60 were killed by the
Peshmerga, who lost eight “martyrs” during the fight.
More than 50 other Peshmerga suffered injuries, many during the
battle but some in the weeks afterwards due to booby traps left behind.
Colonel Farho said his soldiers liberated another five villages.
The clear up operation has been on-going since. The first priority
was demine the town and clear it of booby traps and unexploded bombs.
This involved bringing in three specialised teams – Canadian, French and
American – who, along with the Peshmerga, have now cleared about 90 per
cent of the area.
Around 80 per cent of homes were destroyed. No reconstruction work
has started yet so no residents have returned – and Colonel Farho has no
idea how long it’ll be before the community can start rebuilding. It
could be years, and the cost will be astronomical at a time when war
continues to ruin the economy.
There remains the problem of tunnels which ISIS dug deep under
people’s houses. They built a fairly extensive network – up to 10 homes
had tunnels underneath – during the occupation.
Colonel Farho takes us to one house where the entrance to a tunnel
involves a 10 metre climb down a metal ladder – into a system involving a
main route and numerous branches, some of which extend hundreds of
“ISIS forced its prisoners to build the tunnel network before executing them – so they couldn’t tell anyone ,” Colonel Farho says.
Afterwards, we’re taken to the town’s main church which is surrounded
by destroyed family homes. From afar, the Catholic Church appears
undamaged, its red domed roof and spire intact.
A tower at the back also remains standing. It was a vantage point
used by ISIS snipers before the liberation, and where the Peshmerga
later raised the cross of Christ in triumph.
The church was made with local stone and although mostly intact, the
inside has suffered considerable damage, where the Islamists indulged in
a violent rampage of vandalism.
There are bullet marks everywhere and the altar has been desecrated, a
wine-red carpet leading down from where priests conducted services for
hundreds of years, now strewn with broken concrete, wood and smashed
A large iron cross removed from the top of the church, stands against
a grey marble pillar. Graffiti has been sprayed over the altar and
“That says ‘Allah’ and this says ‘Allahu Akbar’ which means God is
great,” explains our fixer, Balata, translating writing scrawled on a
Pointing to behind the altar, Balata says that the Arabic graffiti
sprayed there says: “No God, only one God – Allah”. Another sentence
says: “Jesus is our prophet as well.”
The Peshmerga say that another church in the town was destroyed
completely because ISIS used it as a weapons dump, which was blown up.
We walk outside to where the tower stands, passing a marble
courtyard, once beautiful but now littered with the debris of war. When
they liberated Batnaya, one of the Peshmerga’s first acts was to return
the bell to the church and raise a wooden cross on the tower – to
replace the sinister black flag of ISIS.
At the foot of the structure, we see blankets used by ISIS snipers
who manned the vantage point 24 hours a day. There are also spent
cartridge shells, a blackened Iraqi coin and the night lens from a high
From the top of the tower, the Peshmerga’s Major Jaffer points to a
cemetery about half a mile away, explaining it was desecrated. We
descend and make our way there on foot.
As we walk through ruins there are visible remnants of ISIS rule.
There’s black writing on an entrance to a home that, the Peshmerga say,
indicates the HQ of ISIS’s artillery during the battle.
Elsewhere, the Islamist terrorist group marked Christian houses with
the Arabic equivalent of the letter “N” to denote the derogatory term
‘Nazarene’ – akin to the Nazis targeting Jewish homes back in the 1930s.
At one point, the Peshmerga point to a vacuum cleaner at the side of the road which had been boobied trapped.
“They would detonate some of these using mobile phone signals, while
other booby traps were triggered using wires,” says Major Jaffer. “This
one had a wire across the road with explosives inside it but there were
also explosives stocked close-by to ensure a massive explosion – so big
that it probably destroyed this whole area.”
He points to craters in the road and circular areas of ground
blackened by fire. He says that ISIS would burn tyres, oil and diesel,
to send black smoke into the sky to provide cover from drones and
Further along, a family photo album lies in the dust, a couple on
their wedding day, pictured smiling at a camera during happier times.
When we arrive at the cemetery the Peshmerga advise us to tread
carefully – saying we must only step on large stones which they use as a
makeshift concrete path into the graveyard. “There could still be booby
traps here so be careful,” says Captain Ayob.
The cemetery is a mess. There’s been wanton violence with headstones
and tombs smashed. Captain Ayob explains that ISIS opened tombs to steal
gold from the dead.
We leave the cemetery and return to the Peshmerga’s headquarters in
the town, where we offer thanks to Colonel Farho and his soldiers for
their time. They’ve no idea how long they’ll remain in Batnaya – adding
that they’re preparing for what may come next after ISIS is cleared from
Batnaya is in disputed land, territory once under Iraqi rule but now
controlled by the Kurds, so there’s the potential for conflict with
Iraq’s Shia militias, among others. Once there’s no more unifying focus
on destroying ISIS, there’s the real chance that Iraq could erupt into
What next for Batnaya after the “soldiers of the Caliphate”?