London, Mosul- In some parts of Mosul, you can almost forget that a war is being waged over the city between Iraqi forces and ISIS 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 ISIS.
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 neighborhood.
“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 ISIS 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 ISIS. 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 ISIS, said 22-year old Osama, who runs the pitch.
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 ISIS 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 ISIS, 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 colored budgies.
After 10 years of marriage, Umm Muhammed’s husband divorced her for the widow of an ISIS 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 recognize the divorce because it was granted by an ISIS 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 ISIS.
“It’s a new life; an uncertain life”.