A young boy, 10 years old or so, faces the camera.
Like many young boys he is happy to be interviewed.
This is war-torn Iraq, however, so he tells of the day ISIS came to his village. What took place, horror after horror, he starts to recount. It is hard to accept that one so young has already seen so much evil. Gradually, his urgent retelling of what happened slows and he breaks down. It is hard to watch as the tears flow down his cheeks. He tries to stem them, brushing them away … but to no avail. His grief is too great. He is now talking to himself as much as to the camera. He talks of when he used to go to school, ride his bicycle and play soccer with his friends—the normal things of a once happy childhood. He stops. Again, he looks at the camera, finishing with the lament of someone much older and the words: Now all that is gone…
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This is just one of the harrowing testimonies in a new documentary: Our Last Stand. The film tells of what is left of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. They are a people who have been systematically attacked, then murdered, raped and displaced. The plague that is ISIS, along with other Islamic extremists, seem to take a sadistic delight in destroying the lives, the lands and the livelihoods of Christians who have only sought to live in peace with their more numerous Muslim neighbors. In this latest genocide, no one came to the aid of the Christians. They looked to the West, but to no avail.
In Our Last Stand, we initially meet these displaced Christian peoples in refugee camps in Iraq. The first camp is where the young boy mentioned above now lives. It is a desolate place. This is not surprising as its inhabitants are still dazed from having had their lives destroyed before their eyes. The second such camp presented is different. It is in Erbil and run by a priest, Father Douglas Bazi. Somehow, despite the desperate circumstances, he has an abundance of energy and fortitude. When a flood of frightened refugees descended upon his parish, he set to work. With some help from Catholic aid agencies, he has created an impressive reception centre. Here these people are not simply fed and given shelter. From the start, he recognized, sagely, that they would need something else besides: hope. He created a school, and a daily timetable for all the children. Placing education at the center of his people’s lives has proved a master stoke. It points to a future just at a time when ISIS and its ilk are trying to consign these Eastern Rite Christians to history.
Whatever these people have lost, and it is a great deal, not just loved ones but most of their worldly possessions too, they have held to one thing: their Catholic faith.
The film crew visit the villages of the Khabour region. This was home to Christian communities for centuries—a vibrant place of many villages, at their center was often a Catholic church. In 2015, ISIS attacked. Their modus operandi was to behead the men and then enslave the women and children. Today, these places are deserted after ISIS withdrew having abducted all the townsfolk not murdered. Nevertheless, Our Last Stand film crew ventured there. What they found were ghost villages. They also found them uninhabitable on account of ISIS leaving mines and booby traps everywhere. They came across a once beautiful church in ruins. There is evidence of desecration with Christian iconography strewn around, broken and smashed; Islamic propaganda was sprayed upon the church’s walls. Even just seeing this on film, one senses a form of savage fury reserved for this place of worship, a place that once held the Body and Blood of Christ.
The documentary crosses the border into Syria. Sadly, ISIS is here too. In fact, the film crew now move ever closer to the land occupied by that terror group and the war they propagate. Here we meet the last line of defense for the few Christian villages still standing there. Those left tell of how no one came to help the Christians as they were attacked across the Nineveh plain. The few young men left have banded together and formed their own militia. We watch them train. We listen to them speak of why they fight, and why they are prepared to die defending their villages. As one of the fighters says: “We will not desert our villages—we have nowhere else to go.”
The first thing one notices about these men is how young they are. The vast majority are not yet 30 years old. The second thing is how few of them there are. Against the terrifying fanaticism of a well-organized military force such as ISIS, they are barely 1000 men. Nevertheless, the militia stand ready to fight an army that masses not more than a kilometer away. When the shelling starts, the camera crew accompanies the militia in their defense. We are taken up into their bullet-riddled lookout posts. From there they return fire as, in the near distance, through plumes of smoke, the fluttering black flag of ISIS draws ever nearer…
By the end of the film we learn that many of those militia seen on camera are now dead. Killed trying to defend their Catholic wives and children as all the while the once Christian West continued to look the other way.
Here is a documentary trying to report on what is really happening to the Christian peoples of the Middle East. It fails. It fails only because the magnitude of the task is too great. Nevertheless, the filmmakers, Jordan Allott and Helma Adde, are to be commended for having begun the reporting of a genocide that is happening today, now, as you read this.
The filmmakers have, furthermore, to be applauded for two things. The first is that they have started to document what is happening not through the prism of the Western secular media, with its own agenda, but from a faith perspective. It is hoped that this will prompt a series of such films; for that, they will need funds. Catholic parishes and schools should consider purchasing a copy of Our Last Stand and arranging a screening night. The proceeds raised from such a screening could then be sent via a Catholic aid agency to help fellow Catholics languishing in refugee camps: like the woman who talks of her constant nightmares since managing to flee from the brutality of ISIS, or the woman perplexed by why her fellow Catholics in the West don’t help.
The second thing the filmmakers are to be commended for is their bravery. To stand filming less than half a mile from an ISIS advance takes courage, specially given the retribution such a group would exact upon the camera crew and female journalist if captured. Yet, the film crew did stand and film. They must continue to do so in order to document what is taking place—if not them, then who?
This film will provoke many emotions in the viewer: tears at the plight of Catholics in Syria and Iraq; anger at the barbarism of ISIS and their fellow travelers; dismay at the West’s lack of willingness to act; admiration for the bravery of the Christian militia willing to defend their families to the death no matter how large the advancing army arraigned against them; but, most of all, a deep sympathy at how much all those caught on camera have suffered, and suffer still, for the crime of sharing our Catholic faith.
At our own indifference and inaction, we should all hang our heads in shame.
Editor’s note: In the image above is an MFS (Syriac Military Council) soldier on the frontline in Hassake, Syria, looking for ISIS militants hiding in homes only 700 meters away.