MOSUL, Iraq – 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 weighed on him.

Ever since Mr 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,” Mr Mohammed said, as he finished boxing up his belongings in his tent in the Hammam al-Alil refugee camp south of Mosul.

Mr Mohammed arrived when US-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 Mr Mohammed under their draconian rule.

Carrying whatever he could, he fled his home in the city, along with his wife and five children.

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. His parents accompanied him too.

Mirroring the heavy mood as they said goodbye, his father, Saleh, played old Iraqi folk songs on a MP3, amid tearful goodbyes and promises to their come back and visit soon.

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

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, Mr 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.

“I hardly recognise anything anymore,” Mr Mohammed said as he walked around with his older brother Ahmed.

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