First families begin returning to homes in Iraq's war-torn Fallujah
By Jean Marc Mojon
The Iraqi police and army had decked out the checkpoints with plastic flowers to welcome the first returning Fallujah residents after the city's recapture from Islamic State (IS) group militants in June.
"Today feels like a rebirth," said Fawaz al-Kobaisi, whose family was among Saturday's first batch of Fallujah returnees.
His old white sedan was still parked outside the front door when he entered his compound for the first time in a year, its windows shattered and wheels almost disappearing in yellow uncut grass.
The 70-year-old's family left in the early days of Islamic State (IS) rule over Fallujah, before the militants even launched their broad June 2014 offensive across Iraq.
"Daesh [IS] fighters stayed in that building just here," he said, with a hint of dread in his eyes as he pointed to a tall house just across the street.
"I lived alone here for more than a year, it was scary... Eventually I had to leave, last year. I just locked these two doors and left the house to God," he said.
Some household items were broken or missing but the furniture was still there, the bed in the main bedroom was still made and the coffee service in the living room neatly stacked away.
The worst damage to the house was broken windows - presumably shattered by the blast of nearby explosions - and Umm Ahmed, Kobaisi's wife, was eager to start cleaning the minute she walked in.
"It's the best day of my life," she said with a broad toothless grin. "This is nothing, all objects can be repaired or replaced."
"Our Fallujah will not remain empty, you'll see. Within a week life will be back to normal," the old woman said.
Only 14 families
That may be an optimistic forecast, however, since only a handful of neighbourhoods in the city, which lies 50 kilometres west of Baghdad, have been cleared for residents to return.
In a highly choreographed event where dozens of local officials jostled for position in front of the cameras, the first group returned on Saturday only to northern neighbourhoods.
Those were relatively spared during the weeks-long operation that saw security forces retake the city in June but southern Fallujah saw far more destruction and still needs to be cleared of explosive devices.
"It's safe here, the children can play in the street," said an army colonel who declined to give his name, as his men used spray paint on the wall of a returning family's house to mark it as safe.
"We have already searched every house and every street around here, but we’ll do it again in front of them to reassure them and encourage them," he said.
Only 14 families returned on Saturday, a number drastically short of the hundreds promised by the authorities.
Inscriptions praising the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate still adorn Fallujah's walls and despite their firm control on the city, the security forces remained on high alert.
Just as Kobaisi and the few other families picked for Saturday's inaugural homecomings stepped off the bus, soldiers opened fire on a municipality truck they mistook for a suicide truck bomb.
According to the United Nations, almost 900,000 people have returned to areas retaken from IS in Iraq over the past two years.
Smooth returns are often cited as key to securing support from the population in future operations against IS and fostering national reconciliation.
However, Jeremy Courtney, president of the Preemptive Love Coalition humanitarian organisation that delivered basic goods to the lucky few returning to Fallujah, argued that the government fell short.
"Today's homecoming ended up being far less of a tidal wave of returnees than we had hoped, than we were promised. We had prepared 'welcome home' food and supplies for 1,200 people," he said.
He said that local officials had seemed mostly preoccupied with appearing on television and missed an opportunity to show their commitment to the people of Fallujah.
Hope was still the dominant feeling among the handful of returning families.
Their homes have yet to be fully reconnected to state electricity and water networks, but in their reclaimed homes they dusted their TV sets and scrubbed their bathtubs regardless.
After local officials promised her father full assistance and drove off, Kobaisi's daughter walked out onto the street and sent her former neighbours a picture of their house from her phone to tell them they could come home.