Bahaa Franshaw spikes pieces of meat onto a skewer on a recent day, ready to sell to the passing trade. His potential customers include civilians coming through Hamdaniya from Mosul to escape the fighting there. Heading toward Mosul are military reinforcements and non-governmental organization workers trying to help get the war-torn city back on its feet.
Five months on from its capture by Iraqi troops, Hamdaniya - which lies between Erbil and Mosul - stands as a near-deserted example of the immense task of reconstruction facing authorities not only in this area but others after clearing out ISIS militants.
One of the few who have returned to Hamdaniya, whose Christian majority population once numbered around 70,000, the 46-year-old Franshaw hopes to revive the farm he had to leave behind, though he is more skeptical of the country’s prospects as a whole.
“I want Iraq to come back as it was before, but it will not happen,” he said.
ISIS militants who were driven from the town retreated to Mosul from where they continue their fight against the Iraqi military. There are no official numbers on the pre-war residents who have returned to Hamdaniya, but Franshaw says he’d be surprised if more than a hundred have returned. They are in addition to the police recruits who are being trained here and military who have taken up positions in the town.
Many of Hamdaniya’s buildings have been destroyed. Between the coalition airstrikes, Iraqi artillery and ISIS forces blowing up the rest, several streets have been reduced to a pile of rubble.
While Franshaw holds out hope of one day reviving his farm, for now he has reinvented himself by opening a kebab shop to serve the passing trade. The town lacks in basics. There is no water and the power comes from the generators. Franshaw’s restaurant works off water tanks, and the plumbing is improvised and breaks down frequently.
“It’s difficult to come back because there is nothing to come back for,” Franshaw says.
Saad Hashim, a Sunni Muslim from Baghdad, eats lunch at Franshaw’s place. He says the displaced people he transports to camps have all promised to return as soon as the infrastructure will allow, with power and water restored.
A local commander of a Christian militia, Arkan Hasib Khidh, blames the authorities for a lack of progress in the town. “The government didn’t do anything for us so far,” he said.
There are signs of normalcy, though. A makeshift hospital is about to take in its first patients and authorities will start handling legal cases. This summer, a school is expected to open its doors to students.
The progress is painfully slow, however, and points to the long, difficult journey ahead for a population which has suffered under ISIS rule, and is now struggling without key infrastructure.
Back at his home, which managed to escape the worst and was only trashed and looted, Franshaw says he fails to understand why some of the damage happened after ISIS militants had gone.
Stepping over his stuff, now scattered on the living room floor, he points to the broken furniture and says: “This wasn’t done by the ISIS.”