a ring of booby-trapped ghost towns like Bartella. There is a dark reason why these ancient towns and villages in the fertile Nineveh Plain, the cradle of Mesopotamian civilization, are now devoid of inhabitants.
Before Islamic State took over the area in the summer of 2014, it was home to a kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious minorities—a reminder of the extraordinary diversity that once characterized much of the Middle East. But the Sunni extremists of Islamic State branded these Iraqis as infidels or heretics, and several hundred thousand members of these communities fled the group’s clutches, abandoning their property and homes.
These days, these displaced Iraqis are no longer just victims. Many minority refugees from the Nineveh Plain are fighting alongside Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers to retake their hometowns. How—and whether—they coexist with the area’s Sunni Arab majority is one of the crucial questions that Iraq and the wider Middle East will face once Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate finally crumbles.
“Today we have the right to determine the future of these areas because we are participating in their liberation,” said Yaqoub Gorgees, political coordinator of the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit, a U.S.-trained force of some 500 men drawn from the Assyrian Christian minority.
Before Islamic State took over Bartella, which is first mentioned in Assyrian chronicles nearly a millennium ago, it was a bustling Christian town of 30,000 people. It straddles a major highway and, before 2014, was just a 25-minute drive from central Mosul.
Islamic State offered Christians an unenviable choice: leave their homes or stay on as dhimmis, second-class citizens who must pay a special tax known as jizya. Except for six families in Mosul, who still pay a monthly jizya tax of 75,000 dinars ($64) a person, all of the area’s Christians preferred to flee, mostly to Iraq’s nearby Kurdish autonomous region, said Mr. Gorgees.
“Everyone escaped the same night, except for a few Sunnis who were living in town,” said Matty Bahnam, a 58-year-old teacher from Bartella. Iraqi troops allowed him to return to his home for a brief visit Thursday. “I was born here. All my memories are here. Nothing can replace this house and this place for me,” he said. “I will move back the day they let me.”
The nature of Islamic State’s rule is clearly visible in Bartella. Stately villas on its main street are stenciled with the words “Property of Islamic State” and the Arabic letter nun, for Nazarene—a sign that these homes were confiscated from their Christian owners.
The few houses spared from such seizure are clearly marked with the words “Sunni Muslim.” They too stand empty. The area’s Sunni Arabs have generally fled toward Mosul as Islamic State has retreated; they fear that their returning Christian neighbors may see them as having collaborated with the ousted jihadists.
Inside Bartella’s main church, the remains of burned Christian books litter the floor. The stone cross atop the church was broken into pieces, the altar gutted. The jihadists had turned the church’s cultural center into an indoor soccer pitch. New black signs renamed Bartella’s streets after fallen Islamic State fighters.
Other minorities near Mosul fared even worse than the Christians. Islamic State considered Shiites (whether of Arab, Turkmen or Shobak ethnicity) as heretics who must convert or die. And other ancient Middle Eastern minorities that follow their own esoteric faiths—including Yazidis and Kakais—were declared fair game for Islamic State’s modern-day slave trade.
None of these minority groups is ready to settle for the pre-2014 status quo once Mosul is liberated. Christian leaders such as Mr. Gorgees are already pressing to create a separate Nineveh Plains province as a homeland for non-Sunni minorities. Yazidi leaders want a separate province for their own community around Mount Sinjar, west of Mosul.
“Sunni Arabs supported ISIS. Sunni Arabs participated in ISIS,” said Hajji Kendor al-Sheikh, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament from Nineveh, using another term for Islamic State. “It is impossible for the Yazidis to live together with the Arabs whose hands are stained with blood.”
Few here have illusions about what lies ahead. “If we manage to maintain security without exacting revenge, our future will be bright,” said Nineveh Governor Nofal Hammadi.
Asked whether he believes that Nineveh’s many communities would be able to live in peace together again, he inhaled and replied: “It will take time.”