Ibrahim was distressed. As a village farmer, father and husband he had continued to hear reports about a new militant group headed right their way. Iraqi Central forces and Kurdish Peshmerga were busy trying to gather forces and learn about what was needed to fight this new extremist militant group. Reports had come in that militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) were taking over villages one by one. Ibrahim and his village are Kurdish Kakai people.
The Kakai people lived peacefully in the Nineveh Plains Province of Northern Iraq and were now faced with the real possibility that their small village would be taken over next. The Kakai people are of Kurdish ethnicity but adhere to a different religion that includes elements of monotheism along with regular prayer. It is a peaceful religion. They get along well with Christians, Yazidis and moderate Muslims, as do most of the Kurdish and non-Kurdish people living in the region. Nestled deep in the rural area of Northern Iraq, there would not be enough time for the Kakai villagers – families, women and children — to escape. The remote location of the village also made requesting back up impossible as ISIS forces would arrive in a matter of hours. Ibrahim and nine other village leaders had to think fast. They grabbed mostly shovels, large gardening tools or whatever they could find and headed to a small building at the entrance of the village waiting until dark. Their hope was to hold off the jihadis until their families had time to escape. They began to see ISIS in the distance heading towards them. There were not dozens, nor 50, but rather 70 ISIS militants headed right their way.
The 10 Kakai villagers, including Ibrahim, prayed to God to give them the strength to protect their families and their village. Dressed in a Chicago Cubs jacket over his new Peshmerga military uniform, Ibrahim wasn’t willing to share the details of the battle, but it was clear what occurred. Against all odds, those 10 villagers fought of 70 ISIS jihadis. When I asked Ibrahim if he had any special military training, he replied, “None … but we were fighting for our people … our village … our homes … It’s a fight I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but we had heart.” By daybreak, the 10 villagers watched in shock as the ISIS militants fled in the opposite direction. They had managed to hold them off from invading the village and killing all its inhabitants. Knowing it would be a matter of time before ISIS came back with tanks and reinforcements, the Kakai quickly took their families and fled deeper into Peshmerga-protected territory in the Kurdish region. Ibrahim led us to the bunker where the 10 villagers temporarily fought off the 70 jihadis.
I begged him for more details, but his humble spirit did not want any attention. To him, there was nothing heroic about fighting for your home and family. He didn’t want to be seen as a hero, nor did the other brave Kakai men that fought off ISIS that fateful night. But I think we all would disagree. The Kurdish Kakai waited and watched as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes drove out ISIS in waves. Finally, the airstrikes targeted their village, which had since been taken over by ISIS. They watched with mixed emotions. On one hand, ISIS had destroyed so much of their village, but liberating it would require even more damage. In the end, it was their home and they wanted it back, so they cheered for the airstrikes. When ISIS had been fully driven out, every Kakai villager packed their things and went straight back home. It was time to rebuild. While the rest of the world obsesses over refugees and destruction in numbers too great to comprehend, the Kurdish Kakai story shows us there are real people with nothing, but wreckage but committed to rebuilding.
The Kakai were so excited to show us the first thing they all worked to rebuild: their place of worship. They pointed to their house of worship with pride, saying, “This is the message to ISIS and all extremists: You will never take away our faith.” Now what they need is humanitarian support to rebuild their village that they all returned to the week ISIS was driven out by U.S.-led airstrikes along with an offensive launched by Peshmerga forces. Today, the Kakai are protected only by the Peshmerga forces and aided by the very limited resources of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. With little international support coming to their government and none to their specific village, they are working with bare hands to restore what they once had — brick by brick. This article was originally published at clarionproject.org.