At the end, which could also be a beginning, everything goes very fast. As the Tunisair plane gains altitude and the fasten-safety-belts sign goes out over the Mediterranean, TU Flight 744 pivots to a northerly heading. When breakfast comes, an island passes by below. And as the flight attendant’s trolley swallows up empty trays and Ismail Ismail, whose first and last names are the same, looks out the window, he sees land between wisps of clouds and wonders whether that is already Europe.
Ismail is sitting in Seat 12 F. His brother George sits next to him, his brother Joseph in the aisle seat. The three mustachioed men are all around 50 years old, wearing shirts of muted colors and plain polyester pants, as if they’d agreed to dress as inconspicuously as possible. In the row in front of them, three tourists from Stuttgart wearing T-shirts and beach tans are playing cards. Behind them, a woman in business attire is saying to her seatmate: "I fly this route countless times a year."
Ismail and his brothers don’t say anything. They don’t read. They don’t sleep. They silently stare ahead.
Where Is What in Tel Goran
The starting point for the investigation: A satellite image of the village of Tel Goran taken before the civil war erupted. The village residents with highlighted names are the protagonists of our story.
Elias Daschtotoday in Krasnojarsk, Russia
Salem Daschtotoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Ebrahim Mersatoday in Chicago, USA
"Isho’s Shop" kiosk
Joseph Ismailtoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Ismail Ismail, fathertoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Georgette Ismail, mothertoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Toni Ismail, sontoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Michel Ismail, sontoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Jimmy Kefarkistoday in Chicago, USA
Suheila Abdelahad, mothertoday in Södertälje, Sweden
Basem Adam, sontoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Bassima Adam, daughtertoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Ekhlas Adam, daughtertoday in Chicago, USA
Ramyia Adam, daughtertoday in Chicago, USA
Mersa Mersa, fathertoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Abdo Mersa, sontoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Ischtar Mersa, daughter-in-lawtoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Butros Mersa, grandsontoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Mirjana Mersa, granddaughtertoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Mirna and Mira Mersa, granddaughterstoday in Beirut, Lebanon
George Ismailtoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Jamil Goliathtoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Mayor Joel Zaia, fathertoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Najma Yokhana, mothertoday in Saarlouis, Germany
Zaia Zaia, sontoday in Gothenborg, Sweden
Hani Zaia, sontoday in Chicago, USA
Edward Sawareportedly in Belgium
Salem Kefarkis, fathertoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Gulisar Kefarkis, mothertoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Samer Kefarkis, sontoday in Fairfield, Australia
Nissan Kefarkis, sontoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Sachar Kefarkis, daughter-in-lawtoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Mariam Kefarkis, granddaughtertoday in Beirut, Lebanon
Zaia Kefarkis, grandsontoday in Beirut, Lebanon
In the midst of the routine of a scheduled flight, no one can tell that they are fleeing, just like all the Syrians and Afghans on boats at sea 36,000 feet below. Should one say the three have been lucky? A breakfast in economy class, a cup of coffee and the Mediterranean already behind them? But how much good luck does it take to make up for the bad luck of belonging to the wrong people, of practicing the wrong religion, of living in the wrong country at the wrong time? Ismail Ismail’s village: overrun. His house: plundered. He himself: escaped from captivity by the "Islamic State." And now he is safe among people who fly over borders instead of merely crossing them. Among people to whom traveling is a mundane thing rather than a matter of fate. Among people who might also flee once in a while, but only from bad weather. Among people like us, in other words, the readers and reporters of DIE ZEIT.
The fate of Ismail and his brothers, his wife, his children, his friends, his neighbors – it would have almost remained untold. On February 23, 2015, this newsflash slid through the world’s awareness only very briefly in the swift stream of war reports, refugee photos and border debates: IS fighters in Syria had attacked ancient Christian communities, 35 villages along the banks of a river named Khabur, which flows into the Euphrates. The Islamists took 253 people hostage, including Ismail and his brothers.
It was still night when, months after their release, the three men boarded the airplane in Beirut. During a stopover in Tunis, we showed them a photo printed from the Internet, a satellite image from Google Maps. A puzzle out of earthy colors. Fields, paths, a winding river. At the end of a narrow road, the outlines of a village. With a bit of imagination, one could make out in this silhouette a leaf, like one that has fallen from a tree.
Joseph and George rotated the photo in their hands, puzzled. They’d never seen the setting of their previous life through the eyes of a satellite. But Ismail figured it out immediately: This was Tel Goran, his village. With his index finger, he tapped on a house in the top left of the printout. He brought the image up to his lips and kissed it. His eyes filled with tears.
In a thousand small, inconspicuous scenes like the one on board TU Flight 744, an exodus of Christians is taking place – not the first, but perhaps the final one. Among the religious groups in flight are ones almost as old as Christianity itself. Copts are abandoning the Middle East, Chaldeans, Maronites. Ismail, Joseph and George are Assyrians. Three members of another Christian people that – as if caught up in a whirlwind of world affairs – is being strewn across the globe. Three brothers blown away from their old home, the area between two rivers known as Mesopotamia, where there are more layers of history than anywhere else, where there are more peoples than states, where everything is a matter of dispute, including power, land, oil and proximity to God.
TU Flight 744 lands at Frankfurt Airport. Buzzing, pinging, ringing, cellphones awaken from their comas. It remains silent in seats 12 D to 12 F. Shortly thereafter, Ismail and his brothers are pulled forward through a long corridor by the torrent of other travelers. The stream of people halts once. George and Joseph hesitate before stepping onto an escalator for the first time in their lives. The vacationers surrounding them might think: What kind of hicks are these guys?
No one suspects that these men come from the center of global affairs. Their hometown lies on the fronts of the Syrian war, where Kurds armed with German weapons are battling IS, where American, French and soon also German fighter jets are making their rounds, where Sunnis are shooting at Shiites and Syrian rebels are shooting at soldiers of the Syrian regime. Entire stretches of land have been depopulated. Chinese researchers have calculated that the night sky over Syria is 83 percent darker today than it once was. In the Christian village of Tel Goran, not a single light is burning anymore.