Crowds of Iraqis gathered by Mosul's waterfalls on Friday (April 21) to savor simple freedoms like dancing or wearing colorful clothes that were strictly banned during almost three years of Islamic State (ISIS) rule. Music blasted from tall speakers mounted on pickup trucks and mini-vans.
Children splashed in the water in the city's Shallalat (Waterfalls) district or rode bikes, horses and donkeys in the surrounding park.
It was like a mass picnic, with about 2,000 people out enjoying the sunshine, while fighting between U.S.-backed forces and Islamist militants raged only 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away in the part of Mosul west of the Tigris River.
The Sunni Muslim militants enforced a strict interpretation of Islam on residents during their reign which included forcing men to grow long beards and women to cover their faces. Anyone breaking those rules would be severely punished.
Umm Qassem, said "they were harassing us; about men's pants length, beards, and face veils," referring to ISIS, which took over Mosul in 2014 and was driven out of eastern Mosul in January 2017.
That atmosphere was gone on Friday as women wore bright colours rather than the black dress enforced by ISIS fighters. Beer and whiskey bottles lay on the ground.
"We are very happy we got rid of Islamic State. For three years, we were destroyed, we could not wear stylish clothes," said Muthana Irshad, who had grown his hair long and donned a gold chain dangling a dollar sign.
"They destroyed youths and families. They killed two of my brothers," he said, before going back to dance with his friends.
The battle to free Mosul - between ISIS militants and Iraqi forces - is now in its seventh month and has taken a heavy toll on several hundred thousand civilians trapped in neighborhoods inside the city, still under control of the militants.
Iraqi forces are making progress in their offensive to expel ISIS from Mosul but face a complicated urban battle as the militants hide in mosques, homes and hospitals, sheltering among civilians in the city in order to evade airstrikes.
The war between ISIS and Iraqi forces is taking a heavy toll on several hundred thousand civilians trapped inside the city, with severely malnourished babies reaching hospitals in government-held areas.
The operation to regain full control of Mosul from ISIS militants began on October 17 last year. Iraqi forces liberated the eastern side of Mosul in February and are currently involved in an operation to regain the western side.