MOSUL -- Five years after it emerged from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS)'s rule, Iraq's once thriving cultural centre of Mosul has regained a semblance of normality despite sluggish reconstruction efforts.
However, like in much of oil-rich but war-ravaged Iraq, ramshackle public services and deep economic difficulties continue to hamper daily life.
Ghazwan Turki is just one of Mosul's many residents who struggle to make ends meet in the former ISIS stronghold, where the extremist group declared a "caliphate" in 2014.
Mosul urgently needs "job opportunities for families who have no income, to improve their living conditions", Turki said.
The father of 12, now in his 40s, lived for years in displacement camps. To support his family, he juggles shifts as a taxi driver and different odd jobs.
"We have to borrow money and get into debt to cover half of our family's needs," said Turki, who shares a single-storey house with his brother.
While acknowledging "progress" in rebuilding efforts, he described "overcrowded schools, where there are 60 or 70 students to a classroom".
Iraqi forces with the help of the US-led international coalition wrested back Mosul in July 2017 after gruelling street fighting, and Iraq claimed victory over ISIS on December 9 that year.
The fierce battles to drive ISIS out destroyed more than 12,000 housing units, several hundred of which were rebuilt with the support of the United Nations (UN) and the Ninawa provincial government.
Signs of reconstruction dot the city of 1.5 million, with workers constructing a new bridge, and cafes and restaurants buzzing.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi also launched the highly anticipated reconstruction project of Mosul airport on August 10. The airport is being rebuilt and improved to prepare for international flights as well.
The Iraqi government formed a central committee in March 2021 to oversee the implementation of a sweeping public service rehabilitation plan.
But many buildings and public hospitals are still in ruins, and in the Old City, some areas are still just piles of rubble.
Mosul, Iraq's second city, has historically been among the Arab world's most culturally significant settlements -- a hub for trade and home to mosques, churches, shrines, tombs and libraries.
The city is working on several "strategic projects", but funding remains a key obstacle, said Mayor Amin al-Memari.
Despite the construction of about 350 schools in just two years, Mosul still needs 1,000 more to end the "chokehold" in education, al-Memari added.
There is also "a significant shortage in the health sector", he said, with more hospitals needed, including those with oncology and cardiovascular surgery departments.
"Before, we had all of this in Mosul," al-Memari said.
'Spirit of Old Mosul'
In Mosul's war-damaged Old City -- only steps from the iconic Al-Nuri mosque, where former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only confirmed public appearance -- Beytna ("Our Home") cafe is busy.
But when co-founder Bandar Ismail opened it in 2018, he faced scepticism.
"We tried to revive the spirit of Old Mosul by opening this cafe, to attract residents and draw them back to this neighbourhood," 26-year-old Ismail said.
"At first ... people mocked us and said 'Who will come here?' The whole area was destroyed; there must have been just two families here."
Today, customers sip coffee and smoke their hookahs in the cafe, which also hosts musical performances and art events.
Even French President Emmanuel Macron dropped by during a visit in 2021.
Nearby, bakeries and restaurants have reopened.
"There is more stability, more security," Ismail said.