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Enjoying freedom from ISIS with a shave and a smoke
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Residents in newly-liberated town of al Fazliya speak of immediate relief following ISIS exodus

Town was held under ISIS rule for last two years

Al Fazliya, Iraq CNN  — 

A group of small boys peer in through the broken window of a tiny barbershop, witnesses to an unfamiliar sight: a man having his beard shaved off.

Some of the younger boys seem almost perplexed.

Even the man with the razor, Ahmed abu Usama, says he’s out of practice. For two years, his business has consisted of regulation “ISIS-approved” haircuts and no shaves. Shaving was banned by the terror group when it took over this village.

The town of al Fazliya is just 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) north of Mosul and a mere 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the nearest ISIS position. Six days ago, ISIS fled this town as Kurdish Peshmerga forces advanced.

And in that time, Ahmed has hardly put down his clippers – more than 200 men and boys have come in for haircuts and shaves.

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“We are so glad this nightmare is over,” he tells CNN. “These past days we live in celebration.”

And many here have the haircuts to prove their elation. While the town was under ISIS control, the wrong haircut could mean a month in jail. But since ISIS has left, Ahmed has had requests for a range of trendy styles previously forbidden these past two years.

First trim in two years

Across the road, another barber is hard at work trimming the beard of Shihab, a young man who, still wary of ISIS, did not want to give his full name.

“Under ISIS, we could do nothing without their permission,” he says, adding with a shy smile that we are witnesses to his first beard trim in two years.

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Yet despite the repression wrought by ISIS rule, he says, the effect of the group’s departure was immediate.

“From the first hour after they left we felt normal again.”

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A sign hangs outside the barbershop, showing a boy and young man with neat haircuts. ISIS militants had taped over the smiling faces – the haircuts deemed “un-Islamic.” Today the tape is gone.

When smoking means freedom

A few shops down the road, a store newly stocked with cigarettes is doing a brisk trade. Outside, bad habits are gleefully renewed in public. Smoking was a crime under ISIS, but now it’s a symbol of the town’s liberty for olive farmer Mahmoud Abbas.

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“I am full of freedom when I am smoking out here on the street,” he says. “The last two years have felt like black clouds over us.”

Al Fazliya is a dusty town like so many others around Mosul. Today the main street bustles. We see few women but the men gather and talk animatedly, many wearing clothing that would have earned them a beating just a week ago.

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‘We were dead… now we are alive again’

One young man, who declined to give CNN his name, grins broadly as he proudly shows off his garb – a Reebok track top, stone-washed denim jeans and leather sandals.

“If I had worn this a week ago they would have taken me to Mosul and beaten me or fined me,” he says. Then he smiles again, clearly thrilled at the chance to wear what he wants in public.

“What can I say? We were dead, and now we are alive again. When the Peshmerga came we became alive again – and God saved us.”

Walking a little further along the street, we meet Garbya Abbas standing outside her home. Abbas tells us for the past two years she would be questioned and fined for simply stepping out of her home. If she did leave her house, ISIS fighters expected her whole face to be covered up.

When the group took Mosul in 2014, one of those rounded up was her son, Khorshed, a major in the Kurdish Peshmerga. His wife and four children stand around her now – none of them know his fate.

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Abbas explains she is overjoyed now that ISIS is gone but is anguished at what it’s done.

“I praise the army and the Peshmerga for bringing us freedom from ISIS,” she says, the emotion etched in her face. “All I want is my son to come back to his wife and children.”

There are many al Fazliyas

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The story of al Fazliya is repeated across the battlefield as Iraqi and Peshmerga fighters edge ever closer to Mosul. Towns freed, people relieved – but scarred as well.

Much damage has been done to bricks and mortar, but also to societies and psyches. Locals who supported and helped enforce the reign of ISIS now fear retribution from other residents in the newly-liberated town.

For today though, in al Fazliya, the relief is palpable and the line at the barbershop grows.