MOSUL, IRAQ - The first time we went to the “My Beautiful Lady” restaurant about a month ago it had just recently re-opened in eastern Mosul.
After two-and-a-half years of Islamic State militants and months of street battles and arial bombardments, customers and staff were excited that life was starting to go back to normal.
One of the most prominent restaurants in Mosul was re-opening its doors. In a way, it felt like Mosul was re-opening its doors.
During the following week, other businesses in the area re-opened and it became a popular spot for Iraqi generals and their men. I met up with one brigade at My Beautiful Lady after they had captured and secured their area in eastern Mosul. A general was inspecting IS prisons, bomb factories and other buildings the militants had used. Journalists followed the humvees through the recently recaptured areas and it became a kind of victory tour.
Days later IS was completely expelled from eastern Mosul and Iraqi forces declared a full victory east of the Tigris River. Bombs, mortars and sniper fire never stopped showering down in neighborhoods near the river and militants never stopped trying to breach the other side.
Until last week the illusion that IS militants were physically gone from eastern Mosul held fast. But several attacks Friday proved locals are correct when they say that’s all it ever was: an illusion.
My Beautiful Lady was bombed during the lunch rush on Friday, as two other suicide bombers detonated their vests, apparently all targeting restaurants, according to residents. Soldiers in another area say they shot down a suicide bomber on foot, and a militant driving a car bomb. Both militants, they say, exploded as they died.
News reports say 10 people died in these attacks and others in Baghdad, but locals say the death toll at the restaurant alone was more than 10. Two days after the bombing, restaurant staff slowly try to clean up, with little hope of rebuilding.
The owner of the restaurant and at least two children were among the dead.
“This place was a beacon of light for eastern Mosul,” says 21-year-old Mohammad Badr, who was a host and a waiter at My Beautiful Lady. “People were afraid to open businesses. We opened and others followed. Now it’s like a ghost town. Everyone is scared.”
In many parts of town on Sunday, we see soldiers and civilians with their faces to the sky, hoping to see IS drones before the drones see them. Soldiers say armed drones injure about 20 people a day in eastern Mosul, mostly civilians.
“The militants try everyday to cross the river themselves, but Iraqi forces stop them with bullets,” says Captain Fawas Affas of the Popular Mobilization Forces, one of the largest of the military groups allied on the Iraqi and coalition side of the fight.
Other soldiers say they shot an armed IS drone down from the sky earlier in the day - it fell but it did not explode.
They bring it out and tie it to a pole in the ground, unsure what to do with it before a technical team arrives.
Not far away, at an Iraqi Army base, we duck under an awning when someone hears another drone buzzing above. It had already passed by the base once, but soldiers are relieved to see it apparently missed them as it takes a detour. When drones capture soldiers on camera, IS mortars follow.
The fact that IS still has members in eastern Mosul is not alarming to some soldiers, who say it simply is, and has always been, fact.
“They have always had cells in eastern Mosul,” says Captain Majid Saeed of the Iraqi Army. “I have friends on Facebook who are telling me they know there are militants in their neighborhood and they want to know who to report this to.”