MOSUL, Iraq – Small stalls and carts have sprung up outside the bombed-out buildings in eastern Mosul, selling meat and vegetables, cigarettes and cellphones to the thousands of civilians still living in neighborhoods where the Iraqi military has driven out the Islamic State group.
As the grinding military operation enters its fourth month, about a third of the northern city is under government control. While more than 100,000 people have fled the fighting, many have remained despite no electricity or running water.
Zaid Khaled sells frozen chicken from a stall in the main traffic circle in the Zahour neighborhood. Every morning, he takes a bus to the easternmost edge of Mosul to buy the poultry in a market.
Because there's no power, he must sell his whole supply each day or lose money.
"Slowly, as people are able to go back to work, life will return to normal, step by step," he said.
On the edge of the neighborhood, hundreds of people must cross a makeshift bridge to buy food and water, or reach medical aid.
Isam Fathi Younis lives just a few blocks from the front line. He wheeled his elderly mother across the bridge Thursday in search of a doctor after she began to have trouble breathing.
His family waited in their home for days before fighting subsided enough to venture out on the streets, he said.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati told The Associated Press the whole city could be recaptured from IS in another three months, or less. When the operation began in October, Iraqi leaders had predicted they would retake the city before 2017 began, but progress has been slow amid fierce counterattacks from the extremists.
Although buses, taxis and private cars have begun to clog the streets, armored military vehicles wind through the traffic in a reminder that the battle is not far away.
One group of soldiers carried a metal chair — a seemingly ordinary object until a closer look revealed that cuff-like restraints had been welded to its arms and legs. The soldiers said they said they recovered it from an IS prison.
"They used this for torture," said special forces Col. Ali Kenani.
"The clamp was used to hold a finger like this," he said, slipping his hand into the vice on the end of one of the arms. "Finding things like this in Mosul is normal."
Shoppers and merchants said the signs of life returning to some of the streets were precarious: Markets like this one still get hit by mortar rounds, and the entire city is without essential government services.
Khaled, the young man selling chicken, said that three days ago, a shell landed a block from where he was standing and killed three people.
The Iraqi military enforces a strict curfew at sundown. The uncertain security situation and the limited access to food and water in Mosul still forces thousands of people to flee each week.
Hundreds of people were massed Thursday in far eastern Mosul, undergoing a strict screening process before being shuttled to nearby displacement camps.
Anwar Ali Hussein initially fled to a nearby neighborhood after airstrikes and mortar rounds began hitting the streets outside her home. She tried to wait out the fighting, but the few safe districts quickly filled up.
"In each house, it was 20 people or more," she said, "and there was never enough food. Only people with lots of money can afford to buy from the markets inside Mosul now."