The Iraqi police and army had decked out the checkpoints with plastic flowers to welcome the first returning Fallujah residents following the city’s recapture from jihadists in June.
“Today feels like a rebirth,” said Fawaz al-Kobaisi, whose family was among today’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 jihadist rule over Fallujah, before the Islamic State group even launched its broad June 2014 offensive across Iraq.
“Daesh (IS) fighters stayed in that building just here,” he said, with still 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 all 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.
That may be an optimistic forecast however, since only a handful of neighbourhoods in the city, which lies 50 kilometres (30 miles) 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 who returned today 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 would not give his name, as his men used spray paint on the wall of a returning family’s house to mark it as safe.
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“We have already searched every house and every street around here but we do it again in front of them to reassure them and encourage them,” he said.
Only 14 families returned today, a number drastically short of the hundreds promised by the authorities.