Directly north of Mosul and face-to-face with Islamic State is a small pocket of bombed and abandoned Christian villages. But across the gravel track from one of the empty villages, abandoned when IS militants stormed the area in 2014, is one row of houses that is still occupied.
Here, a small but determined group of armed Christian fighters are defending what they say are the rapidly dwindling traditionally Christian areas of Iraq.
And with them are two Americans. James, a former U.S. infantry soldier from Colorado Springs, arrived about a month ago. Dan, a veteran from Michigan who said he had been deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006 with the U.S. military, has been here two weeks.
Guns in hand and dressed in camouflage fatigues like their militia hosts, they are part of a group of foreign fighters who have come to boost the Christian defense line. There are also four Frenchmen. The one New Zealander who had joined had already left, the militia leaders said.
Getting to the militia, known as the Dwekh Nawsha, an Aramaic term for self-sacrifice, required a long ride in a pick up truck past multiple checkpoints.
A small cross hung from the truck’s rear-view mirror and the driver and escort proudly wore their Dwekh Nawsha patches on their left arms. James and Dan sat in the back, squeezing their legs around sacks of potatoes and boxes of canned meat.
“I came here to hopefully take Mosul back and push Daesh out of Iraq,” Dan said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Once at the village, he walked up to the roof of the militia’s main house and looked in the distance where dark smoke poured into the sky – Islamic State apparently burning tires to hide their movements from coalition aircraft.
He pointed to a deep trench a few hundred meters in front of the house, saying it was to keep any IS vehicle-borne suicide bombers from reaching them. Kurdish Peshmerga forces were also nearby, providing overwatch and firepower.
Rusting carcasses of spent homemade IS rockets line the gravel road in front of the abandoned village like a decorative necklace.
IS fighters constantly probe the front line here, and rockets land almost daily at the next village along the line. But the Christian militia members say they won't leave.
“This is our land," Colonel Sameer Oraha, a militia commander, said in Kurdish. "We have to protect it. We have to keep it from Daesh’s hands, because this is our motherland and we have to protect all the lands to get our people back to their homes.”
Oraha had previously served with the Iraqi army, and had lived in Mosul, now the IS stronghold in Iraq, and less than 40 kilometers away.
In the faded living room of the house, Oraha and his fighters sat and smoked as they talked. A flag of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, the Christian bloc, covered one wall. In the corner on the table was a small Christmas tree festooned with decorations.
On the floor are two of their machine guns. The militia lack both equipment and experience, James said. “They are regular people, some of these people have regular jobs, they come out here [because] they are trying to save their homeland.”
And he wants to be part of it, retaking all the land that IS extremists seized when they stormed the area in 2014.
“I have experience, I was infantry, for several years and whatever I can do to help them, any knowledge, or with equipment they may have and maybe later tactics on movements, when we slowly move into Mosul, I am here to help,” James said.
Ramen Khoshaba, like others who are younger fighters, said he had joined “so people can get to their home, because there are a lot of people [who] have no home now.”
“We are here to tell them that the Assyrian guys are here, and we will fight for our land.”