Explosions can be heard a few blocks away but butcher Haj Fawzi is wielding his cleaver again as he greets customers at a reopened market in liberated east Mosul.
“Security has returned, the stalls on the market have re-opened and the clients are also here,” he said, chopping up meat as cows’ heads dangled from hooks behind him in the main market of Al-Zahraa neighbourhood.
“What we would still need is to be able to come and go freely to get our supplies,” said Haj Ramzi, who runs another butcher’s shop facing his brother’s.
The entire area around the city is a military area, where tens of thousands of Iraqi forces are closing in on militants from the Islamic State group defending their last major Iraqi bastion. The residents who stayed during the offensive or those who fled but have since returned to their homes cannot move without a slew of permits.
“We have no water, no electricity. We’re having to use water from the well. It’s not clean,” said Umm Ashraf, listing the hardships faced by Mosul residents battling winter conditions. But her mood brightened when her gaze stopped on the display of lipstick and other cosmetics: “That was forbidden (under IS). You could only find these things on the black market. Now, we are free.”
On the main street that runs along the market, a technical team from the electricity ministry was at work, trying to repair lines. A few streets down in the neighbouring district, Abdo can see militant-controlled western Mosul from his roof, but on the ground floor of his house, he is hoping he can re-open his shop soon.
For now, the 25-year-old is trying to build up some capital to restart his grocery store in the Qadisiyah 2 neighbourhood by connecting homes to a power generator for nine dollars. “When it’s a needy family, I’ll connect them for free,” he said.
Iraqi forces retook Qadisiyah 2 only a few weeks ago and while electricity and water are scarce, the residents who stayed during the fighting are keen to resume business as usual. Most of the houses on Abdo’s street and in the area are still standing but some were completely destroyed, and when the fighting took place right in front of his home, Abdo had to close his shop.
Under the rule of the Islamic State group, he stayed open. “The goods came from Raqa or from Turkey,” Abdo said, referring to the Syrian city that was the other major hub in the “caliphate” the militants proclaimed in 2014.
“We couldn’t sell Coke, it was banned, and the authorised Syrian products we had were really quite bad,” he said. Abdo, his brother and their mother hope that the Iraqi government’s reassertion of authority in the area will allow the return of goods from Turkey via Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Mosul lies on the Tigris River at a crossroads between Iraq, Turkey and Syria and once prospered as a major trade hub. Areas to the east of Iraq’s second city were cleared of IS only weeks ago but despite ongoing operations, commerce wasted no time in coming back to life, as evidenced by the trucks lined up at checkpoints in Mosul’s outskirts.
Nearby, Abdo’s brother Omar and a group of other teenagers and young men played football on the artificial turf of the “Doha Stadium”. “We could still play under IS but we were scared of the air strikes carried out mostly by the US-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces against the militants.” said Osama, 22, a fan of Barcelona’s star player Lionel Messi.
“Now we can play football, but we can also play cards and we can smoke nargileh, and that was forbidden under IS,” he said, referring to water pipes popular in the region. The rumble of an explosion is heard in a neighbouring district of Mosul but none of the boys in the group even flinch. “We got used to this,” said Osama.