Iraqis drink up as life returns to liberated Mosul
BASHIQA, Iraq — Life is trickling back into this northern Iraq town that was cleared of Islamic State fighters in November, and so is the alcohol.
Called “Little Iraq” because of its mix of Yazidis, Muslims and Christians living together and surrounded by Shabak villages, it’s also known widely as a source of arak, a clear, anise-flavored liquor that was once made here.
The distilleries — many once located in residential homes — remain shuttered. Bashiqa and neighboring Bahzani were largely evacuated in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept in. The fighting to reclaim it reduced dozens of buildings here to rubble, and there is still no water or electricity.
But just weeks after Kurdish forces cleared it of militants, Bassam Makhmoud, a Yazidi man, returned to run his brother’s shop, where the back shelves are stocked with beer, whisky, ouzo and, of course, arak.
Iraq’s parliament banned alcohol sales last fall, but it’s still sold in the autonomous Kurdish region. And for now, at least, Bashiqa lies inside the Kurds’ defensive lines — territory subject to a dispute between Irbil and Baghdad.
It was here in November that Kurdish Prime Minister Massoud Barzani said areas outside Kurdistan’s regional boundaries that had been freed by Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, wouldn’t be returned to Baghdad’s direct control. Baghdad still wants the Kurds to withdraw once Mosul is liberated.
The territorial dispute is just one of many issues likely to heat up as life returns to villages and neighborhoods in Mosul’s recently liberated east. The eventual retaking of the city’s western half, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are battling the Islamic State group in a campaign now in its fifth month, will probably only intensify the tensions.
On the border between Bashiqa and Bahzani stands a row of pastel houses — one owned by Yazidis, one by Christians and one, now rubble, owned by Muslims. Makhmoud’s shop, which is located across from them, also sells snack cakes and sodas, security chains and padlocks, and hand tools and garden hoses for cleanup. But he said most customers come for booze and cigarettes, considered sinful, or “haram,” under Islam and forbidden under Islamic State rule.
“Some come to smoke shisha, drink tea,” Makhmoud said Monday. Sooty tea kettles warmed in a fire out front just before noon, and two hookah pipes stood near the store’s entrance, in front of a neighboring shop’s crumpled metal security doors. A few men, including a soldier, sat in a cluster of chairs nearby.
Makhmoud’s brother, who’s working to set up a second location in town, delivers the alcohol from Shekhan, a Kurdish village about 60 miles away. He brought a case each of beer, whiskey and ouzo on a run Monday morning. Except for arak, made elsewhere in Iraq, the booze is imported.
Before the Islamic State came, Makhmoud was a furniture maker, but he said the militants took all of his tools, which he thinks they used to dig tunnels to hide from coalition surveillance aircraft. The extremists took everything of value, he said, and his home was destroyed by an airstrike.
“We are like refugees in our own country,” he said. His family, among the roughly 3 million Iraqis forced from their homes by violence in recent years, now lives in a camp northeast of Mosul. He returned to the village for work and sleeps in a friend’s home.
The widespread destruction and lack of utilities have prevented most families from returning to live in Bashiqa and Bahzani. The situation is difficult in several areas on Mosul’s eastern side that have been cleared of Islamic State but aren’t yet fully habitable.
Bashiqa was once considered one of Iraq’s safer towns. Haider Dedar said he moved here from Mosul for that reason several years ago. He was forced to flee in 2014, and his two homes have since been trashed by the extremists.
“I’m Muslim, and Daesh stole my Quran,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Laptop, camera — they took everything.”
On one of his frequent visits to Bashiqa to check on his homes and the cleanup in the village, he stepped into a shop in a building with a damaged Carlsberg beer sign still hanging out front, a few hundred yards from a peshmerga checkpoint.
The shop owner, Khiri Elias, a Yazidi man, opened the store about a month ago. Elias said his biggest sellers are candy, cigarettes and alcohol, which he said he sells mostly to Muslims, both security forces and civilians.
“We’re back to our life,” he said. “We drink and sit, like before.” Some of his customers drink to calm their frayed nerves so they can sleep, he said. But Elias says he himself isn’t worried about militants returning to the village.
In his shop across town, Makhmoud expresses no fear about selling alcohol and cigarettes, though he said the Islamic State might one day return under a new name, just as the group was spawned from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq.
At the end of the block, mortar shells lay in the grass in front of a gunfire-damaged statue of a Yezidi horseman. Nearby, a man turned soil in a flower bed in front of a whitewashed wall where people had recently painted pictures and slogans in bright colors. Several walls in the city bore fresh murals painted over Islamic State graffiti.
“Bashiqa ... City of Peace,” read the writing on one wall, painted in both English and Arabic. “We are back and we’re staying,” read another, in Arabic.
Makhmoud said he returned not only because he needed the income but because he felt he had to do so.
“This is my village,” he said. “If I didn’t come back, who would come back? We need to gradually come back … to bring back life.”