‘They Are Beasts’
Christians Under Siege in Iraq and Syria Featured in New Film
NEW YORK CITY — Hundreds of people quietly wept as a young Christian boy sobbed, “They are beasts. They didn’t leave us anything!” describing the Islamic State’s genocidal liquidation of his town in the film Our Last Stand, which premiered in New York City on Aug. 19.
The new documentary provides viewers unprecedented insight into the suffering and resilience of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria.
Armed only with a camera, Catholic director Jordan Allott, 39, follows fourth-grade teacher Helma Adde, 39, from Long Island, N.Y., to her parents’ hometown in Qamishly, Syria. The residents are descendants of people driven from Turkey by the Ottoman Turks during the “the century’s first genocide,” in Pope Francis’ words, when some 2.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs and Greeks were systematically slaughtered.
Allott and Adde travel through refugee camps in northern Iraq and ancient Christian outposts on the Nineveh Plain.
They cross the Khabur River into Syria, accompanied by Christian fighters, with whom they reach a rooftop in Hasakah within eyesight of the Islamic State’s (IS) ominous black flag.
And on a Sunday morning in a Syriac Orthodox Church, Adde reunites with her aunt and cousins.
Our Last Stand is already gaining acclaim: Within days of its first public screening, it won “Best Feature Documentary” and “Best Director” awards at Revolution Me, an independent film festival showcasing new talent.
Three aspects of the film make it a particularly faith-filled project and product: the film’s focus on selflessly heroic people who serve others in essential ways; the convictions motivating Allott and Adde, whose bravery carries the story; and its message that Western audiences should listen to what indigenous people themselves want and insist their governments act on behalf of regular people, not geopolitical interests.
Humility and Selflessness
A priest who turned a church garden into a school for displaced children and residences for their families, a volunteer coordinator of aid in an Erbil refugee camp and young fighters building defensive forces are among the people viewers meet in Our Last Stand.
Father Douglas Bazi is a Chaldean Catholic priest who has created a refugee center dedicated to education. He runs the Mar Elia Center in Ankawa, a Christian area of Erbil in Kurdistan. It is an area of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds, an ethnic group that considers the Islamic State an enemy.
The 564 residents of Mar Elia were among 125,000 Christians who fled Mosul, Qaraqosh and the Nineveh Plain when IS abruptly descended on them two years ago.
In the film, Father Bazi cheerfully draws with children, checks on pots for dinner, chides young men who are not including women in a volleyball game, and lists the names of babies born in the community — energetically defying hopelessness.
“What we miss in our country [Iraq] is leaders. We have a lot of bosses, but few leaders, so we are preparing them here,” he said. The priest said he was criticized at first for collecting books and musical instruments for refugee children, but now many see the value in his strategy.
Incredibly, Father Bazi was the victim of a sadistic kidnapping in Baghdad in 2006. Islamic militants tortured him for nine days, smashing his mouth with a hammer and breaking his vertebrae, for being an “infidel.” The priest was freed after the Chaldean Catholic Church paid a ransom.
His captors asked for forgiveness before letting him go.
In a more typical refugee camp run by the United Nations, exceptional people have dedicated themselves to providing assistance, day after day, for years.
Sheelan Gabriel lives in Ankawa. When the area was overwhelmed with Christian refugees in 2014, she felt called to serve and has never faltered. She facilitates aid from Christian churches to people living in the camps around Erbil.
We watch as she guides the documentary’s duo through the cramped living spaces and barren, muddy play areas; through it all, they meet displaced but defiant people whose lives have been frozen by endless conflict.
Some declare it’s time to exit the homeland — for any country that will accept them — but many insist they will wait out the crisis.
“We won’t leave. It’s our country. These are our churches. We won’t leave our churches. We won’t leave our monasteries,” declared a middle-aged woman. “This is the place of our birth, and we won’t abandon it.”
Our Last Stand introduces viewers to two little-known Christian fighting forces: the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit (NPU) in Iraq and the Syriac Military Council (MFS) in Syria.
NPU fighter Athra Kado is seen reverently guiding Allott and Adde through sacred religious sites in the historic town of Alqosh on the edge of the Nineveh Plain, 31 miles north of Mosul. Then he reappears patrolling with peers, some of the more than 2,000 Assyrian Christians who have registered with the NPU since it was created in August 2014.
Kado and the NPU focus as much on preserving a culture and faith as on protecting local citizens.
The Iraqi government recognizes the force, which has grown since Our Last Stand was filmed. The NPU even retook a key town, Telskuf, from IS last May, fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces with U.S. support.
Telling the Story
In Syria, Our Last Stand’s guide is MFS spokesman Kino Gabriel, a serious, soft-spoken strategist who has also engaged in successful counteroffensives against the Islamic State.
Mournfully walking through the debris-strewn wreckage of St. Mary’s Church, which was bombed on Easter Sunday by IS, Gabriel and the MFS fighters exhibit the same solemnity as their armed brethren in Iraq.
Like the NPU, the Syriac Military Council was created to protect Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac communities in late 2013, when no national or regional units appeared to defend them. It has grown to include female fighters.
What the film does not try to explain is the region’s complex religious history or why the same ancient people are divided into various Christian denominations.
As Adde told a viewer, “When IS comes to kill you, they don’t ask if you are an Assyrian Orthodox or Chaldean Catholic — you are just a Christian enemy.”
High over the Nineveh Plain, surveying the land where Assyrians have lived since long before Christ, Allott asks Adde, “How do you feel?”
“Like being home,” responds the striking woman, whose dignity and calm make the film a vehicle of beauty and grave sadness.
It was her father, Father Gabriel Adde, a Syriac-Orthodox priest, who created a connection between the teacher and the director after the two men appeared together on a Fox News program discussing Christian persecution in the Middle East. (Allott had traveled extensively in the Middle East before his film project.)
Allott told the Register he was searching for a way to tell this story in his dual capacities as senior adviser to In Defense of Christians and founder of In Altum Productions, a film company taking its name from Jesus’ instruction to Peter, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).
“There’s a need to convey to American Christians, especially, what Christians in the Middle East face and the important role they’ve played historically,” he said.
“I was looking for a subject for the film and knew Helma would be the ideal bridge between her community in Iraq and Syria and an American audience,” remembers the director, who studied his craft at the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a triple major in film, philosophy and political science.
Asked how he was able to keep his camera steady, especially as dushkas (machine guns) were being fired against IS snipers, Allott modestly referred to the risks others take: “You see young men to the left and right who face that danger every day. So you say to yourself, ‘This is the least I can do.’ You put yourself in a little bit of danger, but nothing compared to others. You feel like you aren’t doing enough.”
Allott said he was constantly impressed by Adde’s composure. “My admiration for her grew throughout the trip and inspired me to really want to get the story out because her people have suffered so much.”
The director added, “When we traveled, so many people had a connection to her family. I felt like I was part of a community reunion.”
Explaining to the Register how valuable Our Last Stand is for “reflecting our reality,” Syriac-Orthodox Archbishop Mor Dionysius Jean Kawak also highlighted Adde’s ennobling background: “Father Gabriel is a very devout and faithful priest, but what’s most important to me is that he raised his five daughters in the love of our Syriac community and Church.”
Continued the bishop, one of three serving the Syriac Orthodox Church in North America: “In honor of this upbringing, we saw Helma risk her life to go to Erbil and northeast Syria, trying to make her voice heard on behalf of others.”
“They are going to destroy our bodies but not our souls,” Father Bazi declares in Our Last Stand. “In the end, my people will never forget the people who stood with us.”
Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a contributor
to Foreign Affairs magazine.
- Sept. 18-Oct. 1, 2016