29 Jul 2014
Qaraqosh, Iraq – In the dark of night, on a farm about 30km southeast of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Sabah Zura Sukkariyya woke to the sound of a truckload of gunmen arriving on his property.
It was late June and the air was stagnant, still hot from the blistering sun earlier in the day. “They didn’t talk to me or my family. They didn’t tell us anything, they just took over my farm,” the balding man with a thick mustache told Al Jazeera.
“It was Daesh [the Islamic State group],” Sukkariyya recalled. “They stayed on my farm and ate our food and everything we had. They hit my kids and the rest of my family. They took everything from my warehouse and took it to other Islamic State members.”
Sukkariyya didn’t know what to do. The Islamic State group, which had captured the city of Mosul on June 10, was now on his farm and the family had nowhere to flee. After being forced to stay there for a few days, the family was finally able to leave when the fighters guarding them were in-between shifts.
“I fled with my wife and children and we hurried into town. We walked 5 kilometers at sunset in 50C heat,” he said.
Six days after the fall of Mosul, rumors spread that Islamic State fighters would continue their advance and capture Qaraqosh, a traditionally Christian town, also known as al-Hamdaniya. The Islamic State launched mortar attacks into Qaraqosh, forcing nearly all of the city’s 50,000 residents to flee to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Many residents also fled to Dohuk.
The Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, was one of the few who stayed behind in Qaraqosh. He told Al Jazeera that he refused to leave the city no matter what. “I stayed [in] Qaraqosh with a few other people when everybody left,” he said, adding that without the presence of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the city would likely have been destroyed.
But despite holding back the Islamic State group’s advances, and while many residents have since returned, fear is still in the air. Many streets are deserted and shops are shut. Louis Marcus Ayub, a Syrian Catholic member of the Qaraqosh city council, said locals were scared of living within firing range of the Islamic State fighters.
“The city has basically been turned into a military zone,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that the fighters have taken control of agricultural lands about 2km outside of the security perimeter local residents have set up on the outskirts of the city.
“If you asked if people were comfortable or at ease with the situation here, I would say no. They’re afraid. The west side of the city is the most important part economically because all agricultural land is located there, along with the farmers,” Ayub said.
The story of Sukkariyya’s farm is not an isolated one. At least 40 other farmers lost their livelihoods because of the Islamic State’s takeover of the agricultural fields on the edge of the city.
“I’m a traditional Iraqi farmer. This business I had was passed down from my father and my grandfather. It was passed down through generations,” said Tawfiq Abbosh Jubbo Sakat, as he sat sipping tea, wearing a traditional white caftan. Sakat told Al Jazeera that armed people came in the middle of the night and drove his family out of their home. He said the economic impact of losing his farm has been devastating.
“All my cows were stolen and they were worth $15,000 each,” the farmer, who sold milk, eggs, chicken, and meat, explained. “I’ve lost all my income. Everything. I have a family of 17, what am I supposed to do? Iraq is finished for us.”
“There were thousands of families in the city that depended on us. They relied on us for milk and good quality meat, chicken, turkey, and eggs that were fresh and local,” Sukkariyya said.
Local residents said the takeover of the agricultural fields was also being felt in the city, as meat and milk have since had to be shipped in from other areas of Iraq which has, in turn, driven up prices. Sukkariyya, meanwhile, said that his farm and factory were worth $1m. “This is such a big problem. You can’t imagine the impact. It’s a catastrophe,” he said.
The farmers said they also previously exported hundreds of thousands of kilograms of produce to central and north Iraq each month. “What has happened hasn’t only affected us and the city, but the whole of central and north Iraq,” Sukkariyya said.
Frank Gunter, a professor of economics at Lehigh University and a former economic adviser in Iraq, told Al Jazeera the conflict in Iraq was having a substantial but uneven impact on food availability and prices.
“Urban areas are beginning to experience food shortages reflected in higher food prices, while there are rural communities where excess agricultural products are rotting by the side of the road,” he said.
While he didn’t have price comparisons, Gunter said the impact would continue to worsen, especially as transportation routes continue to be obstructed.
“In towns such as Qaraqosh and the destruction [and] confiscation of trucks has broken the Islamic State-occupied region into many separate food markets,” he told Al Jazeera. “This will result in an increase in food prices in urban areas until transportation links can be restored. But even if transportation links are quickly restored, certain food shortages will probably continue until next year’s harvest.”
Residents are also dealing with a serious water shortage, after Islamic State fighters captured Mosul and cut off the town’s supply from the Tigris river. Taps have since run dry and water is now trucked in, making it too expensive for many. Several free water tanks have been set up around the city, but that only covers about five percent of the residents’ needs.
“If you don’t have a car or water storage tanks, you have to walk or cycle many kilometers to get water,” said a man who fled from Mosul to Qaraqosh, but didn’t give Al Jazeera his name. “The water is not very clean and it’s difficult because it’s about 50 degrees here. We just don’t know what the future of Iraq is. We need help.”