Hussam Matti knelt to the ground, grabbed two fistfuls of brown-gray sand and poured it over his head. The grains mixed with the sweat on his brow as he stood up, smiled and threw up his arms.
“This is the earth of Bartella,” he shouted. “This is our land.”
Government forces earlier this week recaptured this Assyrian Christian-dominated town, just eight miles east of Mosul and a crucial gateway to Islamic State’s most important stronghold in Iraq. But on Saturday, the soundtrack of the war — the clatter of gunfire, the powerful booms of artillery and airstrikes — could still be heard nearby.
Skirmishes also continued Saturday in Kirkuk,100 miles southeast of Mosul, where Islamic State militants a day earlier had launched a major counter-assault. Local officials said at least 80 people were killed in the operation, mainly Kurdish security forces, and about 170 were wounded.
The bodies of 56 militants were removed from the city, local officials said.
“Nearly all the terrorists who entered Kirkuk have been eliminated, and we have full control, except for maybe one area where they are being flushed out,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said after a meeting in Baghdad with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The recapture of Bartella is considered a crucial hurdle in the week-old drive toward Mosul, and, for residents returning for the first time since Islamic State militants were ejected this week, the return home Saturday was a day of celebration.
Many had never expected their small town of 20,000 to fall under the grip of the violent militant group.
Two years ago, many here watched in amazement as security personnel stationed in Mosul fled in fear when Islamic State militants entered the city and announced their caliphate.
Most Bartella residents, many said, presumed they would be safe while the extremist group continued its scythe-like offensive south of Mosul, aiming toward Baghdad.
Even several weeks after Mosul’s fall, Bartella residents were still congregating in tiny cafes off the main strip to sip coffee and play dominoes. Though facing shortages of water and electricity, people still gathered for services in the town’s three active churches.
But the jihadists had other plans. Seeking to secure the areas around their new de-facto capital, they soon turned their sights on the sprawling flatlands known as the Nineveh Plains. In August of 2014, they swept away Kurdish troops and the Hirasaat local protection forces guarding Bartella, considered the eastern gateway to Mosul.
Residents, hearing rumors of the jihadists’ rampage, fled mere hours before the coming onslaught to Irbil, 37 miles to the east. They found themselves refugees, settling in the musty confines of unfinished buildings or makeshift camps in church courtyards. In the weeks that followed, those who could, left. Two years later, many remain.
This week, as part of the Mosul campaign, members of Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service routed the militants from Bartella. By all accounts it was a brutal battle, where every street was the site of a bare-knuckled fight against militants who dispatched waves of car bombs and posted snipers at every turn.
On Saturday, troops were advancing in Humvees along the Mosul-Irbil highway that bisects the town. Wary soldiers kept their eyes peeled for mines and snipers as they walked gingerly through alleyways and debris-filled fields.
One soldier displayed a picture he had taken recently with one of his colleagues. The friend had been killed overnight after a suicide bomber emerged from a tunnel in the building he had entered.
“A militant comes in from one building, takes a tunnel and emerges from another several doors down. How can we clean this place up?” he asked, the frustration in his voice evident.
But for Matti, despite the dangers, it was nothing short of a homecoming.
“In these two years I died. The 32 years I’ve lived so far — you can forget about them. Today I’m born,” he said, as he and his comrades, all members of a Christian militia known as the Nineveh Plains Force, lashed two pieces of timber to make a cross.
They carried it to the top of Mar Shmony, a church on the town’s eastern flank. There, ringed by counterterrorism service members who urged them to watch for sniper fire, they hoisted the cross over the church’s dome and adorned it with an Iraqi flag. One man, with a touch of ceremony, placed a nativity scene set he had fished out from the wreckage of the church at the cross’ base.
“I don’t know what to do. Cry? Laugh? I just can’t believe I’m here,” said Khaled Shamoun, a 52-year-old militiaman, looking up at the cross as a soldier rang the nearby church bell.
Shamoun had come back from Baghdad four days earlier along with his son to join in the fight for Christian areas here. He was eager to go into his hometown of Qaraqosh, an Assyrian Christian city located 20 miles southeast of Mosul, still in the hands of Islamic State.
“Government forces here saved us from this non-Islamic State. They saved us from those rats, those dogs,” he said.
The militiamen then trundled to the church’s interior, picking their way through the detritus of scorched prayer books and an overturned engraved wooden pulpit to sit on pews before Mar Shmony’s ancient altar. In unison, they recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The disarray in the church served as a reminder of what had been lost; Mar Shmony had once been an elegant place of worship, with octagonal marble columns and delicate stone filigree. Its courtyard was presided over by a statue of Patriarch Yacoub the Third, an important figure in the Syriac Orthodox Church who hailed from Bartella.
Now, the face had been smashed by the militants, who count any depiction of faces to be pagan. The walls bore the group’s notorious black and white logo, but also had graffiti saying “[Islam] is above the cross” and “Islamic State is remaining and expanding.”
Elsewhere in the town, the jihadists had left their mark. They had used a stencil to spray paint “Property of Islamic State” on houses and businesses they had confiscated from Christian owners, underlining the stamp with the Arabic letter for “n” for “Nasrani,” a Koranic term for Christians that some consider a pejorative. (Some residents, hoping to avoid a ransacking, had hastily scrawled, “Owned by a Sunni Muslim” with their phone number on shop doors.)
The damage was not as widespread as that seen in other cities taken back from Islamic State earlier this year. But for some, such as Saher Shamoun, an avuncular old man who had come to check on his house, the victory was bittersweet.
He gazed at a jumble of masonry and steel, all that remained of the house he had spent years building on the salary of a government employee, his former job.
Although he had heard from friends checking satellite images on Google Earth that it had been destroyed, he had insisted on coming to see for himself.
“When I saw it my heart clenched,” he said. “My sons lived and got married here, and their children lived here.” He said he did not have the money to rebuild it.
His phone rang, and he spoke to another Bartella resident hungry for news of his own house.
When he hung up, Shamoun lifted the phone and snapped a picture of the rubble.
“People will come back to their homes … . What will I do, put up a tent?” he said.
“Where is the justice in that?”
Special Correspondent Haidar Abdul-Ilah in Bertella and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
12:40 a.m.: This story was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This story was originally published at 8:20 a.m.