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.

21 PHOTOS
One displaced family's return to Mosul
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One displaced family's return to Mosul

Children of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and Iman Abdullah Saleh play at home in Mosul, Iraq, February 27, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018.

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

A daughter of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and Iman Abdullah Saleh stands in front of her house in Mosul, Iraq, March 21, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad (L), 31, walks with his brother Ahmed in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, March 19, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, 31, walks with his wife Iman Abdullah Saleh, 26, and his children and relatives at an amusement park in Mosul, Iraq, March 19, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad (R), 31, works at his uncle's construction company, in Mosul, Iraq, March 18, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad (C), 31, buys a soap in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, March 19, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

A child of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and Iman Abdullah Saleh sits on the floor at home in Mosul, Iraq, March 21, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

A daughter (R) of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and Iman Abdullah Saleh washes her face at her house in Mosul, Iraq, March 22, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018.

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Saleh Ahmad, 66, gets shaved by his daughter-in-law in Mosul, Iraq, March 21, 2018. Saleh Ahmad, his wife, and his son Mohammed Saleh Ahmad's family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Saleh Ahmad (R), 66, and his wife Rafa Mohamed Hamid, 56, share a moment at their home in Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2018. Saleh Ahmad, his wife, and his son Mohammed Saleh Ahmad's family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018.

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Children of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and Iman Abdullah Saleh watch tv with their relatives at home in Mosul, Iraq, March 21, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018.

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad (L), 31, feeds his baby in Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2018. Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, his wife, parents and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Rafa Mohamed Hamid, 56, greets her son after returning home from Hamam al-Alil refugee camp to Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. Rafa Mohamed Hamid, her husband Saleh Ahmad and her son Mohammed Saleh Ahmad's family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Saleh Ahmad, 66, who fled Mosul with his wife and his son Mohammed Saleh Ahmad's family, prepares as they pack their belongings to go back home to Mosul, at Hamam al-Alil camp, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. The family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Iman Abdullah Saleh, 26, cooks at her home in Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2018. Iman Abdullah Saleh, her husband Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. The family lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp and returned home to Mosul in February 2018. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Iman Abdullah Saleh (R), 26, carries her belongings after returning home from Hamam al-Alil refugee camp in Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. Iman Abdullah Saleh, her husband Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and five children fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Al Hamam al-Alil refugee camp where Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and his family lived when they fled Mosul, is seen south of Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. The family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 
 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

A truck is being loaded with belongings of Mohammed Saleh Ahmad, 31, and his family as the family packs to go back home to Mosul, at Hamam al-Alil camp, south of Mosul, Iraq February 26, 2018. The family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Mohammed Saleh Ahmad (C), 31, reacts as his family prepares to go back home to Mosul, at Hamam al-Alil camp, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. The family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

A child carries a box as her family packs their belongings to go back home to Mosul, at Hamam al-Alil camp, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. The child's father Mohammed Saleh Ahmad and his family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

Iman Abdullah Saleh, 26, packs her family's belongings as they prepare to go back home to Mosul, at Hamam al-Alil refugee camp, south of Mosul, Iraq, February 26, 2018. The family fled their home in March 2017 when US-led coalition forces began their advance on western Mosul, the final stretch to rout Islamic State militants who had overrun the city in 2014. 

(REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)

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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.

13 PHOTOS
Mosul's destroyed maternity hospital
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Mosul's destroyed maternity hospital
Interior of a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
People are seen at a maternity hospital, which was damaged from the war against islamic state militants, in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Equipment from an intensive care unit of a maternity hospital, damaged from the war against Islamic State militants, is seen in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A man works to rebuild a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Burnt medicine is seen in a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Equipment from an intensive care unit of a maternity hospital, damaged from the war against Islamic State militants, is seen in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Burnt medicine is seen in a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A view of a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A view of a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Newborn babies are seen at an intensive care unit of a maternity hospital in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A view of a maternity hospital damaged from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Newborn babies are seen at an intensive care unit of a maternity hospital in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A view of a maternity hospital destroyed from the war against Islamic State militants in east Mosul, Iraq August 15, 2017. Picture taken August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
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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)

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