Iraqi teenager Ismail Al-Kanon was captured by ISIS with his mother at the age of fourteen. For two years he and his mother were subject to constant abuse, horrific beatings, and being forced to watch death and murder around them, knowing they might be next. He was forced to publicly convert to Islam with his mother, but after the two escaped they returned to the Faith but not without the memories of what they had endured:
Ismail al-Kanon had been held captive for more than a year, and threatened with execution more times than he cared to remember. But this time was different.
The people who held him, ISIS fighters, found in his possession a picture of Jesus and two small crosses. They took the items away, burned them, and told him he would be beheaded if they found any more.
Ismail could tell they were serious this time. So he took his last cross — the only one they hadn’t found — and hid it very carefully in the back of a cable receiver box.
“When I left it there, I told myself the cross is not just around the neck, it’s in the heart,” Ismail, 16, says.
It was a small act of defiance — an attempt to retain a part of himself. It was also a symbol of hope. He was telling himself that one day he would be back to collect it. That he would survive.
For two years, Ismail and his mother, Jandar Nasi, were captives of ISIS. More than most people living under the group’s rule, they had reason to expect that they would never escape.
When ISIS fighters captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, they offered Christians a choice: either convert to Islam or pay a tax. Anyone who refused these options, they announced, “will have nothing but the sword.”
For the roughly 100,000 Christians living in northern Iraq, the message was terrifying. Most fled to the relative safety of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, along with tens of thousands of Muslims, Kurds and members of the Yazidi religious minority.
But not everyone was able to escape.
“We’re the only ones who stayed, everybody else left. We had no clue what had happened,” Ismail says.
Ismail and Jandar are Chaldean Catholics, the leading Christian denomination in Iraq. They were living in Bartella, a Christian town east of Mosul. The town largely emptied when ISIS made its advance. Ismail’s mother was too sick to travel, so they hid in their home. When they emerged three days later, there was practically nobody in sight.
They went to the main road, flagged down a car and asked to go to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. They got as far as a checkpoint in Khazer, midway between Mosul and Erbil. It was manned by armed men with beards.
“There were some men at a checkpoint. They asked me where I am from. I told one of them I was a Christian from Bartella. He ordered me to step out of the car and hit me on the head. He then tied my hands and took us to Mosul,” Ismail says. “That was the first time I saw ISIS.”
He didn’t know it then, but that was the start of his two-year nightmare.
They were fortunate to make it out alive. According to some church leaders in Iraq, more than 500 Christians were killed during the ISIS takeover of Mosul. John Kerry, the former US secretary of state, said ISIS “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
But Ismail doesn’t feel lucky. His ordeal has taken a huge toll.
“I’m mentally and physically tired,” he says.
“My feelings towards ISIS are that I want to completely erase them. But at the same time our religion doesn’t promote cruelty. It says ‘Whoever hits you on the cheek offer him the other also.’”
Before ISIS was kicked out of Ismail’s hometown of Bartella, they ransacked the churches, burning pews and smashing altars. (Watch our video of walking through one of the churches.)
He thinks the cross that he hid is still where he left it. He had meant to go back to get it. Now, he is not so sure if he will.
“I will leave Iraq,” he says. “It is ruined.”