One displaced family's return to Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq, March 28 (Reuters) - For Mohammed Saleh Ahmed and his family, returning to Mosul after more than a year away was bittersweet.

He was happy to return to a semblance of his old life, but leaving behind the friends he'd made in the refugee camp where he'd lived for a year weighed on him.

Ever since Mohammed fled Mosul in March 2017, this community of friends and relatives - a group of like-minded survivors of the battle for Mosul - had made life bearable.

"It's so hard saying goodbye," Mohammed said, as he finished boxing up his belongings in his tent in the Hammam al-Alil refugee camp south of Mosul.

Mohammed arrived when U.S.-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to route Islamic State. The militants had overrun Mosul in 2014 and placed people like Mohammed under their draconian rule.

Carrying whatever he could, he fled his home in the city, along with his wife and five children. His parents and siblings were not far behind.

A year ago, the Ahmed family did not think they'd be returning to Mosul so soon. But when they got the opportunity, they jumped at the chance.

A few days after deciding to leave, neighbors and relatives came to help them load their belongings onto the small truck that would start the next chapter of their lives.

Mohammed's father and mother were going, too. Mirroring the heavy mood as they said goodbye, his father, Saleh, brought out an MP3 player and played old Iraqi folk songs, amid tearful goodbyes and promises to their come back and visit soon.

In Mosul, they were greeted by Mohammed's older brother, Ahmed, who had persuaded them to move back by finding them a modest two-room house to rent.

As the men carried things inside the house, Mohammed's wife Iman, immediately set about preparing the family's first meal in their new home. His parents, who moved in with Mohammed's family, celebrated their return over tea.

Though rudimentary, their new house was a step up from life in the camps, with a separate kitchen and makeshift bathroom, and the Ahmed family quickly settled into a new routine.

Before finding a job working at his uncle's construction company, Mohammed busied himself by going to the market, getting a haircut and taking his children to a recently reopened amusement park. And he took Iman to buy some new clothes.

"New clothes for our new life," he said, as the couple wondered through the market picking out dresses.

In the time that the Ahmed family was away from Mosul, the nine-month campaign to rout the militants culminated in a brutal battle in the heart of its Old City, the centuries-old historic district that is Mosul’s beating heart.

Though Islamic State was defeated, the western half of the city, where Mohammed grew up, was largely flattened. Seeing it for the first time, Mohammed was shocked by the what it's become.

"I hardly recognize anything anymore," Mohammed said as he walked around with his older brother Ahmed.

(Reporting by Khaled al-Mosuly, writing by Raya Jalabi, editing by Larry King)