Hundreds of families who fled Mosul last year left displacement camps Wednesday to head back to their homes, in the biggest wave yet of returns to the city, officials said. Displaced Mosul residents hurled bags and foam mattresses into vans and onto buses, many smiling as they prepared to forsake a place they often first reached scared, hungry and exhausted.
Iraqi forces recently completed their recapture of eastern Mosul, which tens of thousands of people had fled since the October 17 start of a massive offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group. According to the United Nations, more than 180,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive but at least 22,000 have since returned to their homes.
The authorities have been organising returns from Khazir and Hasansham displacement camps twice a week. "We are now taking 500 families, which means 2,700 people, to their liberated houses," local official Mustafa Hamid Sarhan told AFP at the Khazir camp, which lies southeast of Mosul.
"This is the biggest wave," he added, as at least 50 buses lined up for families cleaning up their tents and packing their belongings for the journey home. One of them was Dhabbah Mohammed Khader, a 45-year-old woman from the neighbourhood of Al-Zahraa who was about to return to her home with two of her sons.
"I'm so happy we finally got rid of Daesh," she said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "We can go back home now," said the woman, tears running down her wrinkled face.
The continued presence in east Mosul of hundreds of civilians as Iraqi forces advanced through the streets has restricted all sides in their choice of weapons and the city has suffered relatively limited destruction. "I am so happy to be going home, close to my people," said Salha Ahmed, a widow and mother of seven, as she rolled up the rug covering the gravel in shelter number 81 of Khazir camp.
When she finished packing, she left her poky shelter with no regrets but said she was a little nervous at the idea of returning to Mosul. Her house was damaged in the fighting and several of her children and grandchildren were still living in another displacement camp further south. "We have suffered a lot, we have been shattered," she muttered absently, her eyes watering.
She said that one of her sons was killed by the Islamic State group for an unknown reason. "We're tired, we don't know what to do. Should we stay or should we go? I'm confused." Salima Khdeir, who lived in the tent next to hers, came to say goodbye. She also made a request to go home but she and her four children were not included in Wednesday's batch.
"It's nice to see them go, it means our turn will come. But I'm also sad I have to stay here while they're allowed to go home," she said. Some level of normalcy is returning to parts of east Mosul, especially areas far from the Tigris, along which elite forces are preparing a likely cross-river assault on the city's jihadist-held west bank.
The scars of the conflict are everywhere however, electricity and water are scarce, as are some basic goods. Salah Ahmed said she knew her new life in Mosul would be tough. But as she waded in the mud to clamber onto the truck with her bags and waved goodbye to her camp neighbours, the grandmother was adamant:
"Despite the circumstances, Mosul is a paradise."
By Wilson Fache