NOBROSS Tabya and his friends pile into the back of a small Toyota pick-up truck, their guns jammed into the tight spaces between them.
Their uniforms are new and crisp, still imprinted with deeps folds that tell of their inexperience as easily as their fresh faces.
Tabya, a teenage soldier just out of training, is headed straight for the frontlines in Iraq as a member of a newly formed militia, made up of Iraqi Christians, formed by Iraq’s Assyrian Patriotic Party (APP).
Tabya, an Assyrian Christian, was pushed out of his home and made a refugee when the Islamic State tore through his village in August. Tens of thousands of Christians fled in chaos. The Sunni insurgents captured several Christian areas after an aggressive forward drive, absorbing swathes of the arid and sweltering Iraqi Nineveh Plains into the extremist group’s self-declared Islamic Caliphate.
The men, many of whom are refugees like Tabya, have joined the fight for a variety of different reasons, ranging from struggling against helplessness, to seeking revenge.
“We want to take our cities back from the Islamic State,” Tabya told Scotland on Sunday. “We want to protect the Christian villages. No one wants their home, life and land taken from them, no one wants this. I am doing this not just for me but for the Christians of my country.”
Tabya had previously spent weeks taking refuge on the narrow pews of a small crowded church in the Iraqi Kurdish region. But unlike the vast majority of Christian refugees, Tabya has decided to pick up a weapon and fight back against the militants that stormed his hometown in an attempt to purge Christianity out of the country for good.
“They [Islamic State] are coming here to kill or be killed, they are not running, they just fight until they die,” Tabya said. “And although I am scared, I will do the same. My village has more than 1,000 men. Where are they? If we are not together we will lose. We all must fight or we will lose.”
Now Tabya, and his fellow fighters sleep, eat, train, and fight alongside each other out of their base, an empty hospital, in the virtual ghost town of Tel Skuf.
The militia patrols a section of the northern front, inspecting the abandoned buildings, streets, and villages for Islamic State explosives – now a common and fatal occurrence – while keeping a watchful eye on the ominous black flags of the extremists that lie in wait just over a kilometre away.
Some of the older men in the group have previous military experience – they served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein – and with every turn the militia’s elders appear keen to pass on their knowledge to the young men.
Henry Sarkis, spokesperson for the APP, the group that formed the militia, told Scotland on Sunday that the fighters number 50 currently, but that number should increase.
The Christian militia work directly under the orders of the Peshmerga – at least officially. However, while on patrol the militia often heads to areas that even the Peshmerga, meaning those who face death in Kurdish, are hesitant to head into.
For now, Iraq’s only Christian militia watches in nervous anticipation. Yet worried faces are replaced by defiance when talk turns to the seemingly inevitable long fight ahead.
Reged Maki, a refugee from the Christian city of Bartella, appears proud to have swapped his family’s United Nations refugee tent for a makeshift barracks on one of the most dangerous frontlines in the world.
He sports an AK47, casually slung over his shoulder, and is determined that when the Islamic State advance again, he will stand his ground and fight.
“I am here to protect my country,” Maki said. “I have lost my home, I have nothing, but I want to be fighting, I want to stop the Islamic State. I want to tell the Islamic State we are ready, we will not let them take anymore land, we will fight until we take all our cities back, and we will die for this cause.”