MOSUL, Nov 30 — In a camp near Mosul a picture of a three-year-old girl, snatched from her mother’s breast by Islamic State militants when they overran her Christian town two years ago, is taped to a wall along with a desperate plea from her parents.
“Lost Girl”, reads the poster in the displaced people’s camp, urging anyone with information about Christina Ezzo Abada to call the number provided.
Almost nothing is known about what happened to Christina since her abduction, but her family assumes she was taken to Mosul and is praying she will be found among the tens of thousands of people now fleeing the city.
In the cramped cabin where they live, her parents keep vigil around the television, tuned to a channel tracking the progress of Iraqi security forces as they fight to recapture the city from Islamic State.
A picture of Christina hangs on the wall next to an image of Jesus.
“We hope she’s alive,” said her mother, Aida Nuh, the dark circles around her eyes giving her a haunted expression. “Maybe someone will bring her and look for us and make contact. God knows”.
Christina’s case is unusual. Although Islamic State is known for its brutality and has kidnapped thousands of men, women and children from Iraq’s Yazidi minority, Christians faced a different ultimatum under the militants’ rule — pay a special tax for protection, convert to Islam, or die by the sword.
Most fled, but around 30 remained in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, about 15 km (10 miles) southeast of Mosul, including Nuh and her husband, along with Christina, their youngest daughter.
It is a decision they have lived to regret, but at the time it was unclear how the militants would treat them, and Nuh said she expected Iraqi security forces to regain control in a matter of days.
Nevertheless, they sent their four elder children to safety in the nearby Kurdish region as a precaution.
Twenty days went by in Qaraqosh with Christina and her parents holed up at home, fearful of the black-clad militants, who came to them demanding they convert to Islam, but also provided food and water when asked.
On Aug. 22, 2014, the militants instructed all remaining Christians to gather at a local hospital for medical tests, and Nuh and her husband obeyed.
But there were no tests, and after a short interval the militants ordered them onto a minibus waiting outside, which had been smeared with mud to prevent passengers looking out or anyone seeing in.
The militants, whom Nuh identified as local Arabs, searched the group of around 30 Christians for valuables, which they took, and separated four members of the group before corralling the rest onto the bus.
Nuh sat with Christina on her lap and was breast-feeding her when one of the militants came up and wrenched the girl away.
“Who will look after her? She needs me,” pleaded Nuh, trailing the man as he got off the bus with her daughter. He said he was following orders from his emir, or commander, before disappearing into the hospital, barring her way.
She continued to beg, and eventually the emir emerged from the hospital carrying Christina, who was crying.
“I told him to give her back to me,” recalled Nuh. “He didn’t speak. With his eyes he motioned at me to get back on the bus.”
When she resisted, the militants first threatened and then forced her onto the bus, which drove to a wasteland on the edge of Islamic State territory and dumped the entire group there.
That was the last time Nuh saw her daughter.
In the days after she was taken, Christina’s parents called local Arabs with links to Islamic State who told them she had been placed with a family and was in safe hands.
But then contact was lost. Further efforts to track the girl down have yielded nothing, although some speculate she ended up in an Islamic State orphanage.
It is not clear why the militants kidnapped Christina, who would now be five-years-old.
Earlier this week, the family returned to Qaraqosh for the first time since leaving more than two years ago. On the way there, the car stopped and Christina’s father, who is blind, got out and heard the voice of a young girl.
“I heard ‘papa! papa!’,” he said. “I called ‘Christina! Christina!’, but she didn’t reply”. — Reuters