BARTALA: Embittered and afraid, Iraqi Christians in the town of Bartala are pondering their fate, just a short drive from militants and jihadists now in control of the city of Mosul.
The town of some 30,000 residents lies 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul, a northern city that was the first to fall to a major militant offensive, and Iraqi forces fleeing the onslaught last week passed through Bartala as they withdrew.
The local police abandoned the town, and its residents are now being protected by a force of some 600 Christian residents and the Kurdish security force known as the peshmerga.
Christians from Bartala, and those who have found refuge here after fleeing Mosul, are bitter about the situation, feeling trapped between militants who consider them infidels and a federal government that has failed to protect them.
“The government doesn’t care about us—we saw how the army fled and left us to die,” said Saba Yussef, a Bartala resident whose mother-in-law fled Mosul and is staying with her.
“Now we are relying on our guards, the peshmerga and God, because we have no real pro–tection from the militants if they come,” he added.
Since Mosul’s fall, water and electricity supplies have been cut in Bartala, increasing frustration.
“We’re being subjected to the collective punishment that the government is using against Mosul,” said Milad Jibrael.
He and his childhood friend Tahrir Munir are part of a local force guarding the four churches in Bartala.
In the Maryam al-Adra church, they describe their fear at what might happen if the militants attack.
“We’re scared, to be honest. We know that if ISIL decides to come, they will take the whole town,” said Jibrael, referring to the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant jihadist group, which has led the militant charge through north Iraq.
He said he is committed to his role, nonetheless.
“I will stay here, whatever happens. If I have to die protecting this church, I will,” he added.
Barricades have been set up around local churches and check–points manned by Christian, and peshmerga forces check cars entering the town.
The forces are lightly armed, but local Kurdish official Idriss Sorchi said he is confident his men could repel any militant attack.
“We won’t enter Mosul, but our orders are to protect this area and to fight the militants if they come,” he said in the local headquarters of a Kurdish political party.
The building has been com–mandeered by the peshmerga forces he leads, with soldiers washing their boots in the corridor and drinking tea inside conference rooms.
Sorchi acknowledges that the militants have access to heavy weaponry abandoned by Iraqi troops, but said the peshmerga have resources they can call on too.
“We are confident that we can protect this town and our areas. We will deploy whatever is necessary to do so,” he said.
Some 20 families from Bartala have already left the town, fearing a militant assault.
But most have stayed, and many are even sheltering relatives who fled Mosul.
Bernadette Bustros fled with her husband and five children after seeing the militants parading through the streets of her neighborhood.
“We were terrified, and we started the journey on foot. The streets were full of people leaving, but no one tried to stop us,” she said.
She describes her flight as the latest chapter in a long nightmare for Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have more than halved since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Her brother raises his voice as he rails against the threats to his family and community.
“In [executed former dictator]Saddam Hussein’s day, we knew there was one name you couldn’t say,” he said.