Some Iraqis in this town get massages in a spa or take muddy baths and relax in the morning sun on the banks of the Tigris. Others beg for food or rise at dawn to queue for water.
Hammam al-Alil, a town south of Mosul once famous throughout Iraq for its healing hot waters, is back in business after a US-backed offensive retook the area from ISIS militants and authorities reopened its spa.
This oasis of leisure now coexists, however, with camps housing more than 30,000 of the people displaced in the region by the campaign to dislodge ISIS from Mosul, it’s the last major city stronghold in Iraq.
“I come here three times a week,” said 47-year old Ali Qader, a retired soldier, after showering with water from a natural spring. “It’s refreshing and good for your skin.”
Residents have been flocking back since ISIS was expelled from the town in early November, ending the days when bathers had to wear a tunic covering them from knee to navel as part of the Sunni Muslim movement’s strict modesty code.
“If you had only swimwear, Daesh (ISIS) would whip you,” said Wael Abdullah, 12, before diving into a pool.
“The hisbah came checking that everyone had the right dress,” he said, referring to the religious police that monitored everything from men’s beards to women’s veils.
Across the street is an indoor pool where locals and soldiers taking a day off from the front get a soapy massage.
“We used to have visitors from Baghdad, the south and even the Gulf, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia,” said Latif Mohammed, who was hired to help run the spa for 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8.58) a day.
“It was built in the ‘80s but needs refurbishing.”
The elegant hotels at the spa are now shuttered or bombed out because ISIS fighters used to live there. A machine gun nest at the entrance shatters any sense of normality.
On Monday, the spa opened only at noon due to rumors of an ISIS attack, said a federal police officer.
Spa town camp
Every five minutes or so, a bus pulls into Hammam al-Alil with more new arrivals. Up to 5,000 people come every day from the district or across the frontlines around Mosul, around 30 km (19 miles) to the north.
With tents packed sometimes with two families in one some spend their first night in a mass tent or outside. Many are in state of shock.
“We left at 1 am to avoid Daesh snipers walking to the army checkpoint and arrived here in the evening,” said 20-year old Omar Abdullah, who came with 20 family and friends.