After almost three years in captivity, an Iraqi Christian girl abducted by the Islamic State in August 2014 has finally been reunited with her parents.
Christina Abada, who is about to celebrate her sixth birthday, was welcomed home at around 10am this morning, local time. Locals say she was released by the Iraqi Special Forces.
"It is a very happy moment; everybody is dancing and clapping and singing," one Christian woman told a World Watch Monitor contact from the Ashti refugee camp, near Erbil, where her parents have lived for the past two years.
"She looks OK, quite healthy. I believe she must have been in the house of a family who took good care of her. She was even wearing gold earrings, so it must have been a wealthy family," she added.
But there was one note of caution.
"Although everybody was very happy, it was also sad to see that Christina herself is in shock about all the people around her," the woman said. "Everybody is asking questions and speaking to her, but she does not say anything back, really. She also seems to be overwhelmed by the huge crowd of people welcoming her."
In a clip posted on Twitter by local journalist Steven Nabil, Christina's mother thanks people around the world for praying for them, and praises God that Christina is now home.
Christina was abducted in August 2014, when IS overran Iraq's second city, Mosul, and then swept into the Christian city of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains, where the Abadas lived. Prior to IS's occupation, it was the largest Christian city in Iraq.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities had already fled the northern region. Christina's family, however, stayed behind because the father, Khader, is blind. Other Christians too old or frail to flee also stayed, hoping for a measure of mercy from the invaders – a hope which was misplaced.
On 22 August, militants rounded up the Christians, saying they would receive medical check-ups. World Watch Monitor learnt how events unfolded for Christina's mother, Ayda. Several times, she said, IS fighters pointed at her, with Christina in her lap.
Someone gave an order to take out any gold or valuables. The Christians produced whatever they had brought – money, gold, clothes, ID cards. The IS militants took it all.
As the Christians were bundled into a bus whose windows were smeared with dirt, a jihadist walked up to Ayda. He took her little girl from her arms and just walked away.
Ayda pleaded for her daughter, but the man others called emir—or chief—waved Ayda away with a despising gesture. At gunpoint, she was forced back onto the bus.
Until today, that was the last time Christina's parents had seen her.
Rumors and Pain
For the first two years of Christina's abduction, there were regular rumors that she was still alive, but over the past year those rumors had begun to dry up, increasing fears about her fate.
A year after her abduction, her parents told a contact for the charity Open Doors about their pain of not being able to celebrate with their daughter on her fourth birthday.
"My biggest joy would be when my child, Christina, would return to us," Ayda said.
A year later, in September 2016, Ayda said "part of our heart is missing".
"I fear my Christine grows older without me, that I will never see her again," she added.
Always in Mind
During her absence, Christina was always on the minds of Ayda and the other family members. She even featured in a play Qaraqosh residents wrote and performed in Erbil as a cathartic approach to their trauma.
"Christina, where have you been, beautiful?" one of the characters, Moshtak, said to a girl in a blood-stained dress. "Your mother is looking for you. She looked for you everywhere. Where did they take you, beautiful?"
"Can any of you bring Christina back to her mother?" Moshtak asked, before ending on a hopeful note, reminding the audience that, one day, "she will wear a new dress."
The play was referencing the time when Christina will receive a new life in heaven, but for her parents and the rest of the community, today is a day they rejoice that there is still life for her, here on Earth.
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