Just five months ago, the black flag of ISIS was hanging over the streets of Qaraqosh, a Christian town in northern Iraq.
The town's inhabitants had all fled in 2014 from the group's murderous fighters, who persecuted or killed non-Muslims where they found them across Iraq and Syria. ISIS held Qaraqosh for more than two years, looting and destroying much of it in the process.
Today, life is trickling back. And so is the booze.
Although the streets are largely empty, one returning resident, a 47-year-old Christian man named Ibrahim Noel, has reopened his liquor store that was smashed to smithereens by the Islamist extremists.
“They totally destroyed the shop. It took us 20 days to rebuild it again,” says Noel, standing proudly in front of fully stocked shelves of Scotch whisky, Greek ouzo, vodka and beer.
In fact, it is the only shop open on the street. That it’s open at all is quite a statement, given that just 20 miles down the road the battle for the city of Mosul is still raging.
There aren’t many customers in Qaraqosh, but the store is becoming a welcome stop for newly liberated residents of Mosul, who lived for years under the alcohol-free rule of ISIS.
“A lot of people are coming from Mosul — they are thirsty to drink alcohol,” Noel says. “We had one guy the other day, he said he was liberated one hour ago. He came straight to here to get a drink.”
Noel is among the first of his neighbors to return to the town, after Iraqi and allied forces pushed ISIS out in November. He came back after struggling to find work elsewhere and opened the liquor store about a month and a half ago. He’s hoping more residents follow.
“Now, business it getting better and better. When the people will come back, it will get better still.”
He says he is not afraid of ISIS targeting him anymore. But he may have to soon contend with the Iraqi authorities. During the time the shop was shuttered and ISIS ruled the town, the Iraqi government passed a controversial law banning the sale of alcohol.
For now, at least — and while the police are busy elsewhere — weary travelers from Mosul know a place where they can get a stiff drink.
Richard Hall reported from Qaraqosh in northern Iraq.