Mosul Comes Back to Life, Even as the Deadly Battle Goes On

The battle to retake Mosul from the so-called Islamic State is far from over. But the liberated zones feel very liberated indeed.

© Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

MOSUL, Iraq—On the six-lane highway leading into eastern Mosul, Hussein and his brother Omar are pushing a cart laden with frozen chicken toward the sound of battle.

Few cars venture down the road, which is blocked by the black Humvees of the elite Iraqi counterterror forces that have been engaged in a lethal contest over the city for the past three months.

So Mosul residents have taken to the streets by foot to stock up on supplies that had run low as the fighting raged around them.

The 20-year-old Hussein and his 14-year-old brother live in the Al Quds neighborhood, which was fully liberated from the so-called Islamic State by the Iraqi military two weeks ago.

Their family had to close a small restaurant it runs four months ago when the rising price for foodstuffs put them out of business. But they reopened only days after ISIS was expelled, and the brothers are already on their second supply run to a market that has sprung up in Gogjali, the first Mosul neighborhood to be liberated.

The residents of Al Quds had hunkered down as the front line approached them like a tidal wave. The Humvees of the Iraqi military were met by fanatical fighters holed up in well-prepared defenses, and suicide car bombs that claimed the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.

But as soon as the terrorist menace had been banished, life returned. Every day, residents from the liberated areas stream to and from Gogjali, bringing in food, fuel, and other essentials. Shops and restaurants are reopening, putting an end to the shortages and price inflation that had become acute in the final weeks prior to liberation.

With the government and the international aid agencies failing to deliver, it is private enterprise that is resuscitating the city.

Every day, trucks laden with goods cross the checkpoints into what is still a militarized zone, pumping lifeblood into the commerce at the Gogjali bazaar.

With increasing supply, prices have fallen: A 20-liter canister of cooking oil changes hands for 50,000 Iraqi dinars, almost $40, in ISIS-controlled Mosul, but can be had for 12,000 dinars in Gogjali. One kilo of sugar costs 10,000 dinars where the jihadists still retain control, more than 10 times the normal price.

Despite the drop, many residents continue to struggle.

ISIS stormed into Mosul in June 2014, a few hundred of its fighters routing security forces as they took over the country's second largest city. Since then, around 1.5 million people have had to comply with the terror group’s strictures, and economic stagnation set in as the city was cut off from the outside world and trade was restricted to ISIS territories in Iraq and Syria.

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Baghdad at first continued to pay salaries to government workers in Mosul, but eventually balked at the ISIS practice of skimming a portion of these as “taxes.”

In a country where the public sector employs a big part of the workforce, the absence of government salaries proved disastrous for the finances of many families in Mosul.

“Food is cheaper now, but he have had no work for over two years, so we are running low on money. We are waiting for aid organizations to come but there has been nothing so far,” said Abu Issam, an older man carrying shopping bags home on the highway from Gogjali to Al Quds.

Because of the proximity to the front lines, the delivery of goods does not reach deep into the city, with trucks coming from the Kurdish-controlled territories bordering Mosul venturing no further than Gogjali. Residents living in other areas of the city have to travel by foot for hours to purchase affordable goods at the market.

On Oct. 17, Iraqi forces began their campaign to retake Mosul, and on Nov. 1 elite counterterrorism troops first entered Gogjali. Iraqi forces have since retaken about 70 percent of the eastern part of Mosul, which is bisected by the Tigris River.

They have been greeted by jubilant civilians, but not everything is back to normal in the liberated areas. Basic services have been interrupted by the fighting, and have still not been restored.

“We have no electricity or water. Still, life is better now,” says Abu Issam, who says his family drilled a 7-meter-deep water well in their garden after a water main was destroyed by a coalition airstrike.

As he speaks, the thuds of explosions are carried over the rooftops of Al Quds from Hay Sumer, a neighborhood a few kilometers to the southeast, where attack helicopters and ground forces are battering a pocket of ISIS resistance. The timpani of automatic fire mixes in as the helicopters take aim with their cannons. To the southwest, a plume of white smoke rises to the sky, indicating that a suicide bomber has detonated his carload of explosives.

It is to this ominous backdrop that people indulge in individual liberties that had been denied to them for the past two and a half years. Gone are the beards that the jihadists forced the men to grow, and men once again sport fashionable haircuts and a clean shave.

“I feel that I am alive again,” says Ziad, who sits smoking a shisha pipe in a metal shed at the edge of the market in Gogjali. The 25-year-old runs this makeshift shisha and tea shop with a friend since the market sprang to life two months ago. Previously he’d had a job in a water treatment plant that he held before and during the ISIS occupation.

The shop is equipped with little more than two water pipes and a teapot, but Ziad is happy.

“My job is smoking shisha and drinking tea all day,” he says with a grin. With an ample supply of product shaping his hair, and wearing fashionable clothes, he is enjoying a freedom that was taken from him for over two years.

“Under Daesh, if you went outside with a group of friends, they would ask you questions and tell you to visit the mosque. We never left the house. You wouldn't have recognized me with the beard I was wearing,” he says.

All around Ziad, the market buzzes with life. Fruit and vegetable stalls compete for space with stands selling cigarettes, which are bought with relish. Packs of the local Akhtamar brand would be sold secretly for 2,000 dinars when ISIS ruled, they now sell for 500 dinars at Gogjali, says Ashraf Shahab, who used to run a grocery shop and now sells cigarettes at the market.

Other stands sell mobile phones, SIM cards, and phone credits. ISIS conducted house-to-house searches to confiscate mobile phones to prevent the population passing information to the military. Those who could not find a good place to hide their phones now come to the market to buy a new device.

Whenever a neighborhood is liberated, sales spike as people from the area come to him, says Jassem Mohammed, who has a small assortment of cheap phones spread out on a stool in front of him. Jassem gets his wares from friends in the Kurdish region, and he quit selling vegetables to engage in this lucrative trade.

Having had no access to the outside world, people are taken aback by the developments in phone technology. The twenty-two year-old Hassan is amazed that he was able to purchase a shiny Samsung J3 Galaxy smartphone for only $150.

But then, after over two years of archaic ISIS rule, “everything is a surprise to us,” says Hassan.