Letter from Kirkuk — From the November 2016 issue

Escape from The Caliphate

Rescuing and ransoming Christian hostages in Iraq

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A hundred and fifty miles north of Baghdad, Kirkuk straddles the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region, and the rest of Iraq. The city is a disputed territory; the Kurds say it belongs to them, while Iraqi Arabs say it belongs to Iraq proper. For decades, local Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen communities have struggled for control over the land and its oil. To the northwest burns the eternal fire of Baba Gurgur, which is fueled by a vast oil field and looks, from a distance, like an entrance to the underworld. Many say it’s the fire into which King Nebuchadnezzar cast three Jews as punishment for their refusal to worship an idol.

During the rise of the Islamic State, the Kurds seized the opportunity to secure control of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. The southern portion of the city became the front line between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, which have been more successful at resisting the militant group than the central Iraqi government. Anyone crossing from the caliphate into Kirkuk is required to surrender themselves to the peshmerga at the Maktab Khalid, the gate between the territories.

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Along with other former hostages, Ghaseon Patros Malko (third from right) attends a special service at a church in Kirkuk. She and her family had been living there for several months

Over the past two years, more than 125,000 Iraqi Christians had been forced from their homes and had moved to government camps, caravans, and construction sites across the relative safety of Kurdistan. In an effort to preserve a semblance of the Christians’ community and culture, Matti and his church were trying to resettle those from Mosul and the Nineveh plains—long home to Iraq’s Christian population and now occupied by the Islamic State. Matti used church funds to support around 500 families in Kirkuk and the nearby city of Sulaymaniyah. The money came from Iraqi, European, and American donors. In addition to financing the relocation of Christians, Matti used the funds to pay informants to locate and ransom Christians who had been kidnapped by militants. This activity, Matti told me, was unknown to the donors. Once the hostages were free, smuggling routes controlled by the fighters were the only way to bring them into Kirkuk.

These weren’t Matti’s first dealings with terrorists. During the American war, when Al Qaeda abducted ten Christians in Kirkuk, Matti negotiated with the kidnappers and paid $100,000 for the hostages’ release. After police intervened and disrupted his procedures, the militants shot one of the hostages in the head; Matti received a video of the execution. (The rest were freed.) More recently, he has supported refugees fleeing from Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan. When Mosul fell to the Islamic State, in June 2014, Matti realized he needed more help. He approached the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic church in Kirkuk, a gray-haired man named Yousif Thomas Mirkis, and the two began collaborating. (The Chaldean church is made up mostly of Aramaic speakers who trace their ancestry to Iraq and Syria.)

The hostages Matti was rescuing were cheap compared with kidnapped Westerners. The Islamic State prices its hostages according to country of origin. Western hostages sell for millions; Iraqi Christian hostages cost just a few thousand each. Matti had ransomed eighty hostages so far; eighteen of those he paid for with his own money. (His regular income came from his work as a war photographer for a Western news organization.) The rest were purchased with church funds. I calculated that Matti and Mirkis had channeled at least half a million dollars over the past sixteen months into the hands of Islamic extremists.

The Chaldean church in Kirkuk, where I visited Matti in October 2015, was a sprawling granite compound the size of two football fields. Pink flowers bloomed in the courtyard and cats slept on warm walkways. A glinting obelisk listed the names of Christian martyrs. Recently released Christian hostages slept on thin mattresses or rested in the shadows of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The church was across the street from a mosque, and on Fridays the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the nave.

The church compound had become at once a refugee camp, a psychiatric ward, an orphanage, and a command center. Inside, construction workers toppled a shack to make way for another school building. Widows suffered through weeks of boredom in front of the television. The children watched Paris Fashion Week on TV and kicked their legs to the show’s techno beats. Matti provided the church with security, new mattresses, and a kitchen stocked with cooking supplies. (The refugees cooked together: for lunch they had one option and for dinner two.) The women’s dorm had a twenty-four-hour street camera that the women monitored on a television screen in the lobby. Residents had prepaid shopping cards to use at local stores. At the church school, nuns prepared tests for Muslims: Who was the first suicide in Islam? What does the Prophet say about destiny? They had a separate test for Christians: How do you define belief? What is God hiding in the pages of the Bible?

Matti allowed only the most traumatized former hostages to live within the compound walls. Among them was Ghaseon Patros Malko, who paced a storage room in a pink tracksuit with her arms crossed. Malko had been living in the compound for the eleven months since Matti had brought her family into Kirkuk. She had two daughters, Sidra and Sarah, and a son, Aboud. Her mother wept loudly and her father quietly. Her mother was a small woman with a curved back. She wouldn’t stop pacing and babbling to God. Her father lay on a foam mattress. He patted his eyes with tissues and piled the refuse around him. He couldn’t walk. His legs had stopped working after his son was kidnapped by the Islamic State.

“Greetings from God,” Matti said to Malko when he introduced us.

“Where’s God?” she asked.

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is the author of Demon Camp. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Love Crimes,” appeared in the January 2015 issue. This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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