In parts of Mosul, a semblance of normality despite war
In some parts of Mosul, you can almost forget that a war is being waged over the city between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants who still control more than half of it – at least momentarily. Cars clog the streets, stalls are heaped with fresh produce and bicycles weave through the traffic, as the city slowly emerges from more than two years under the iron grip of Islamic State.
As Iraqi forces prise away more and more of the militants' largest urban stronghold, a semblance of normality is returning to eastern districts that were retaken in the early stages of a campaign that began nearly three months ago. But reminders of the conflict and the militants' legacy are never far away.
"We are trying to forget," said 19-year old Wisam, slicing meat off a skewer to serve a customer in the Zuhour neighbourhood. "It will take time – some things have got inside our heads."
Around his stall, the market was bustling with people enjoying the freedom to walk around undisturbed by the Hisba, which enforced Islamic State rules and punished infractions with fines and flogging.
Young men ran after a ball on a soccer pitch, some wearing shorts, which were forbidden under Islamic State. The logos on their football shirts, however, are still missing: the militants deemed them un-Islamic and ordered they be removed, particularly those resembling a cross.
Occasionally, the militants themselves came to play, prompting everyone else to flee in fear of being caught in the crosshairs of coalition planes targeting Islamic State, said 22-year old Osama, who runs the pitch.
Liberating Mosul from "Islamic State"
What has happened in Mosul since the operation to retake the city from the so-called "Islamic State" started in October? Photo essay by Nadine Berghausen
Iraqi army discovers a mass grave: while Iraqi troops advanced further into territory held by the so called “Islamic State” in their campaign to recapture Mosul, they found a mass grave which holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. AP footage shows bones and decomposed bodies dug out of the ground by a bulldozer. This Iraqi federal police officer holds a stuffed animal he found on the site
Evidence of brutality: the grave, found near the town of Hammam al-Alil near Mosul, proves to be a dark testimony to the Islamic State′s brutality. IS militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large areas of southern and central Iraq in 2014. This photo shows a member of the Iraqi security forces inspecting a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Alil
Freed from terror: these displaced Iraqi men from the Hammam al-Alil area celebrate their liberation as they return to their homes after the recapture of their village from Islamic State by Iraqi forces
Oil fields on fire: oil wells have been set ablaze by IS in an apparent response to the ongoing military offensive to drive the extremist group out of its stronghold. A military commander said more than 5,000 civilians have been evacuated from eastern parts of Mosul and taken to camps. The surprise attack showed that even while under siege, the group could still sow chaos in parts of Iraq far from its base in Mosul
What is the fight for Mosul all about? Smoke rises during clashes between peshmerga forces and IS militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Initially used by IS to establish their caliphate and henceforth the key source of prestige and resources, Mosul is also the base for IS′ chemical weapons operation. The ancient Assyrian city has also been a vital source of tax revenue and forced labour
The role of the Iraqi army and its allies: Iraqi special forces take cover as their unit comes under fire from an Islamic State sniper. Together with Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias, Iraqi forces intensified fighting and moved into more densely populated areas of the city without air support from the US-led coalition due to the high risk of civilian casualties
Kurdish peshmerga: meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces decided to focus on other strongholds of resistance in northern Iraq and on the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, where IS initiated a campaign of violence in response to the advances of the Iraqi army towards Mosul
Fleeing from the fighting: the United Nations says over 34,000 people have been displaced from Mosul since the operation began on 17 October, with about three quarters settled in camps and the rest in host communities
Under militant rule, matches had to stop at prayer time and players only ever had one eye on the ball, Osama said. The other eye was on the street, in case an Islamic State patrol drove past.
There is still a mark where a mortar bomb tore through the synthetic turf and only shards of glass remain in the window panes after a car bomb exploded nearby when Iraqi forces retook Zuhour in early November.
Many people stayed in their homes throughout the battle, defying predictions of an exodus from the city where as many as 1.5 million were said to live.
Those who left – both during the fighting and before – are also returning, even though basic services such as electricity, health facilities and water have not been restored.
The municipality has resumed work, but much of its equipment was damaged by Islamic State, which converted some of its vehicles into car bombs, so authorities are borrowing them from other provinces. At a busy intersection, workers were digging up the road to fix a water pipe damaged by an air strike. A taxi drove past, its passengers singing along to loud music and dancing in their seats.
"It's an indescribable feeling," said a man in the front passenger seat, who comes from a district recently retaken by the security forces. "I can't express it".
Some vehicles still fly white flags to identify their passengers as non-combatants and the crow of cockerels is interrupted by bursts of sustained gun fire and the thud of artillery – audible from the front line further forward.
Thousands are still fleeing clashes in the city and for them, life is far from normal. At a gathering point for the displaced on the road out of Mosul, Umm Muhammed sat with the few possessions she grabbed before fleeing the Sumer district this week: a change of clothes, a Koran and a cage containing three brightly coloured budgies.
After 10 years of marriage, Umm Muhammed's husband divorced her for the widow of an Islamic State militant who was killed in battle, she said.
Although Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women, Umm Mohammed said the new wife forced her husband to seek a divorce. Iraqi authorities however do not recognise the divorce because it was granted by an Islamic State judge, so she is still officially married.
"I am divorced and married," said Umm Mohammed, who unlike many women in Mosul has removed the full face veil imposed by Islamic State. "It's a new life; an uncertain life." (Reuters)
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