Residents of Heet in western Anbar province celebrated the fourth anniversary of their city's liberation from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) differently this year due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
They raised Iraqi flags in the city's main squares and streets, exhibiting portraits of the group's victims and recalling the crimes it committed on the city's local radio station.
On April 29th, 2016, the Joint Iraqi Operations Command in Baghdad announced the conclusion of "Operation Desert Lynx" almost seven weeks after its launch on March 12th.
The operation, led by joint Iraqi forces with international coalition air support, culminated with the liberation of Heet and its environs and the complete expulsion of ISIS militants after they sustained heavy losses.
On the four-year anniversary, activists raised photos of security forces elements killed in the battles to liberate the city and distributed gifts to their families.
The old al-Qalaa mosque blared three takbeers (Allahu Akbar) with the afternoon prayer on April 28th to celebrate the occasion.
Horrific crimes not forgotten
"ISIS perpetrated egregious tragedies and committed horrific crimes in the city, and residents consider this day a great day and are thankful to everyone who helped them restore their city's freedom," Heet mayor Muhannad al-Obeidi told Diyaruna.
Activist Ali al-Nimrawi told Diyaruna he was at a displacement camp watching footage of the battles when Iraq's military spokesman announced the liberation of Heet.
"No one will ever forget that day," he said.
Today reconstruction is afoot, albeit slowly, and the city is recovering, he said.
"This is important, as stability has returned despite the deep scars left by ISIS in the hearts of people, including orphans, widows and the disabled," he added.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Nimrawi, a Heet dignitary, said the losses and sacrifices would have been far greater if not for the efforts of the international coalition, whose fighter jets targeted the group's positions, making it easier for Iraqi forces to advance toward the city.
"I was a member of the tribal councils fighting ISIS and took part in the attack, and I am proud of it," he told Diyaruna. "This day must remain an important symbol in the lives of the residents of Heet and its environs."
Iraqi and tribal forces pursued ISIS in the villages and rural areas around Heet. "We lost brothers and friends from all spectra of the Iraqi people who took part in the offensive with us," he said.
Anbar provincial council security committee chairman Naeem al-Koud said the residents of Heet are treating the anniversary of the liberation of their city as an achievement that must be commemorated.
"Despite the health crisis and partial curfew imposed in all cities of Anbar, we feel that the initiatives taken by activists to commemorate the anniversary is something to be proud of," he said.
"ISIS committed horrific crimes in Heet that left more than 2,000 victims from all segments of the population, who were killed en masse for refusing to pledge allegiance to the group," he told Diyaruna.
"These too are being celebrated and remembered as martyrs and heroes," he said.
Moving past ISIS
Every Iraqi city that was occupied by ISIS now marks the day of its liberation from the group and remembers the crimes it has committed, said Iraqi MP Mohammed al-Karbouli.
"This is important, in my opinion, because it is tantamount to immunisation against any terrorist group or ideology that contemplates resurfacing in the future," he told Diyaruna.
"The anniversary of the city's liberation must be accompanied by extending gratitude and appreciation to everyone who helped us take the city back from ISIS's clutches," said high school teacher and women and children's human rights activist Madiha Omar al-Heeti.
"We are now participating with US, European, international and UN organisations in rehabilitating several sectors in the city, particularly the education sector," she told Diyaruna.
Workshops and courses also are being held to help ISIS victims, she said.
"We feel the city is recovering steadily and it is much more beautiful than before for one reason: we now recognise the value of our city and love it even more."