Only 14 families returned to the Iraqi city of Fallujah three months after it was declared free of the Islamic State group when the Iraqi security forces retook the city in June, which was one of the major cities under the extremist group’s control.
The Iraqi police and army had decked out the checkpoints with plastic flowers to welcome the first returning Fallujah residents. "Today feels like a rebirth," Fawaz al-Kobaisi, whose family was among Saturday's first batch of Fallujah returnees, told the French news agency AFP.
The 70-year-old's family left in the early days of the Islamic State group’s rule over Fallujah, before it even launched its broad June 2014 offensive across Iraq.
"I lived alone here for more than a year, it was scary ... Eventually I had to leave last year. I just locked these two doors and left the house to God," he added.
Authorities had promised hundreds of families that they would be able to return to the city, but only 14 were allowed back.
However, it may be an optimistic forecast since only a handful of neighborhoods in the city, which lies 30 miles west of Baghdad, have been cleared for residents to return.
However Jeremy Courtney, president of the Preemptive Love Coalition humanitarian organization that delivered basic goods to the lucky few returning to Fallujah, argued the government fell short.
"Today's homecoming ended up being far less of a tidal wave of returnees than we had hoped, than we were promised. We had prepared 'welcome home' food and supplies for 1,200 people," he said.
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He argued that local officials had seemed mostly preoccupied with appearing on television and missed an opportunity to show their commitment to the people of Fallujah.
These northern neighborhoods were relatively spared during a weeks-long operation that saw security forces retake the city in June, but southern Fallujah saw far more destruction and still needs to be cleared of explosive devices.
"It's safe here, the children can play in the street," said an army colonel who would not give his name, as his men used spray paint on the wall of a returning family's house to mark it as safe.
"We have already searched every house and every street around here but we do it again in front of them to reassure them and encourage them," he said.
According to the United Nations, close to 900,000 people have returned to areas retaken from the extremist group in Iraq over the past two years.
Smooth returns are often cited as key to securing support from the population in future operations against the Islamic State group and fostering national reconciliation.
Iraq has been fighting an insurgency by I.S. group militants since the summer of 2014, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country leaving a major security gap that allowed the Islamic State group to take over cities from ill-trained Iraqi troops and further expand into war-torn Syria.