KIRKUK, Iraq -- Seven young women in Kirkuk credit the Virgin Mary for their safety after spending a harrowing eight hours hidden underneath beds while Islamic State group fighters used their room as a hideout during an assault on the city.
“The Virgin Mary was with them,” Father Roni Momika told CNA Oct. 23.
The priest, who ministers in the refugee camps of Ankawa, Erbil, in northern Iraq, was in cellphone contact with two of the girls while they hid under the beds. They gave him a play-by-play account of what was happening.
Seven university students in Kirkuk found themselves threatened by the Islamic State group’s assault on the city on Oct. 21.
“ISIS entered the house of our students, the girls,” the priest reported.
When they heard the militants coming, the women quickly darted under four beds in one of the rooms, where they remained undiscovered for eight hours as ISIS fighters used the room as a refuge to eat, pray and hide from Iraqi Army forces.
“I was speaking with them all the time,” Father Momika said, noting how there was “a strong girl” who told him, “Father, I will continue speaking with you and tell you all our news and what ISIS is saying.”
For the duration of their time there, the militants not only ate and prayed, but used the beds to care for two of their fighters who were wounded.
“On one bed there is a lot of blood,” the priest said.
He shared with CNA some photos taken of the room after the soldiers left. He explained that “when ISIS was attacked by our army (the Iraqi Army), there were two people from ISIS injured, and ISIS put them here on these beds ... and under the beds were the girls.”
Father Momika said he was in constant contact with the girls, telling them not to forget theirfaith and to “pray to the Virgin Mary; she will come to help you.”
In what both the priest and the girls view as a miracle, “ISIS didn’t see them,” Father Momika said. One of the girls told him later that “when ISIS entered our room, they didn’t see us, (and) we feel that the Virgin Mary closed their eyes from seeing us.”
The attack on Kirkuk took place amid a wider offensive on the part of the Iraqi and Kurdish armies to retake the city of Mosul, which was taken by Islamic State group forces in 2014 and declared a caliphate.
On Oct. 17, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the ground offensive to retake Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State, which has been months in the making.
In addition to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, U.S. troops, British and French Special Forces and a number of Turkish soldiers are supporting the Iraqi army in the battle, which was initially expected to take between several weeks to several months to complete. However, the process has been going quicker than expected.
Mosul is the last major stronghold the Islamic State has in Iraq. They have been steadily retreating since the end of last year, in battles against Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, as well as airstrikes from the U.S-led coalition.
The attack on Kirkuk left some 80 people, mostly security forces, dead. It was largely seen as an attempt to distract Iraqi and Kurdish forces from the Mosul offensive.
According to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, at least 30 members of ISIS were still holed up in different parts of Kirkuk. However, the assault was officially declared over as of Saturday morning.
Father Momika explained that the seven girls were among more than 100 refugees taking university classes in Kirkuk after being driven out of their hometowns by the Islamic State group in 2014.
Many of the girls come from Mosul and other cities nearby, such as Bartella, Alqosh and Telskuf, he said. All of them had studied at the University of Mosul before the invasion.
Although their families are living inside the refugee camps in Erbil, the girls, in addition to a number of boys, wanted to continue their studies, but were unable to attend university classes in Erbil.
They then enrolled at the University of Kirkuk. Since traveling back and forth every day was dangerous, they stayed in houses the Church had been renting in the city, returning to Erbil on the weekends.
Father Momika said he is happy that all of the students escaped unharmed. Two of his fellow priests, Father George Jahola and Father Petros, who was ordained with him Aug. 5, traveled to Kirkuk Saturday to pick the girls up and bring them back to Erbil.
He also spoke about the liberation of his hometown, Qaraqosh. The town was formerly regarded as the Christian capital of Iraq before the invasion in 2014 forced 120,000 people to evacuate in one night. Most of its residents are now living in refugee camps in Erbil.
On Saturday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces entered Qaraqosh, which sits about 20 miles from Mosul. Although the town is said to be largely empty, Islamic State group militants have destroyed much of the city. They left landmines strewn along the road to Mosul.
Father Momika said that Iraqi soldiers have raised the Iraqi flag in Qaraqosh, replacing that of the Islamic State.
“Qaraqosh is liberated,” he said. He cautioned that there are still dangers, like Islamic State group fighters who are hiding throughout the city still.
He passed on a report that Islamic State fighters “made a big, deep hole” in the ground, climbed into it and “bombed themselves” as the Iraqi and Kurdish armies advanced.
The priest, who was still a seminarian when he was forced to flee the city, said he finds it hard to talk about what happened to Qaraqosh, “because we saw some photos, and they made us feel sad.”
“There are a lot of places destroyed, and ISIS burned our church and ISIS broke all our crosses that were above the churches,” he said. A very important church in the region had been destroyed.
“It’s difficult for us because it’s our history. It’s a big church in the Middle East, in Qaraqosh,” he said, explaining that the sight is similar for the neighboring town of Bartella. That Christian village was recently liberated by the Iraqi Army.
“Yesterday, the priests entered the church in Bartella, and they saw everything was dark, because ISIS burned everything,” he said.
He voiced hope that there would be no sight of Islamic State militants in Qaraqosh as the city is secured over the next few days. He had a request: “Pray for us.”