"The old fairs are in full swing again"

I write all this with great reserve. I am only a momentary observer of a beautiful people who have suffered greatly. A people that must now move on with all its wounds. Only those who have experienced the horror can put it into words or feel the wounds. Who am I, with my western view, to put this into words just like that? With great restraint and humility, I describe what I have seen over the past few days.

At the same time, I am here, together with my fantastic colleagues, for a reason. And that reason is worth a lot to me. Exchange through art. Connecting. Debating. And hopefully - as far as I am concerned - encouraging young female students to bring art into the world.

What a difference from two and a half years ago, when we came here to work with young people for the performance 'Orestes in Mosul'. I was not allowed to leave the neglected pavilion where we were staying without permission from the fixers. Too dangerous and too risky. We were in Mosul with a large group of westerners and too much attention was to be avoided. Even in the school where we were teaching, we were advised not to hang around outside too much. The previous school had been bombed, so we had to avoid too much attention here as well. In the normally busy street of the tea house where we showed some images of our work to mums and relatives, the yellow taxis were not allowed to park, for fear of explosions. The population of Mosul was still in the midst of a post-war trauma.

Now, as a woman - wearing a headscarf out of respect - I walk the streets alone. The people look surprised. In Mosul I suspect we are still one of the few groups of westerners here. But there is openness everywhere, and cheerfulness. We are warmly received.

In the same art school where we briefly taught two years ago, we now have twenty students: five young women and fifteen young boys. One girl is married and has a child, one boy is also married. Many of the students already have a job. There are two hairdressers, a make-up artist, an influencer,... they are studying and working at the same time.

It is not so easy here for girls to study at the art school. It makes me very happy that there are five of them who are following our workshops. I believe very strongly in the link between education and emancipation. One of the male translators told me that they expect a lot from what we do here in that area. They hope, together with us, that the film classes will be an extra stimulus to attract more women to art education. The social context in Mosul remains predominantly male. So all the more I am glad that the women can hopefully bring art into society. And make equality more evident through art.

We are again staying in the same pavilion as two years ago. An old pavilion, with faded glory. Now repopulated. Our neighbours are almost exclusively wedding couples and relatives. Every day there is a hustle and bustle of cars decorated with plastic flowers. The community needs hope, celebrations and fun. The eateries are again populated by families. There are children everywhere. The old fairs are in full swing again, fully lit in all colours of the rainbow. The eateries and tearooms are packed with men smoking shisha, playing cards and chess. The other day, I was the only woman, albeit accompanied by my male colleagues, in one of those huge, brimming bars with only men and boys. People looked up briefly. That was all.

The markets in the old part are fully open again, the market vendors hopeful that the tourists will return. They urge us, "Tell them it's safe here again." The fresh fish lies unpacked with the old bathtubs filled with water in front of them. Soldiers are still seen here and there, but few. Some streets in the old part of town have been made passable again.

The improbable number of bombed houses in many places in old Mosul still look like it happened yesterday. The bones of the buffalo and their horns are dried up and hollowed out, but they remain in one spot on the Tigris River, where IS fighters gathered the animals for food.

You feel as if you are in an open museum, created so that you never forget the terrible things that have been done to an entire community. How many innocent children and women and men were coldly murdered. How many beautiful buildings, libraries etc. have been destroyed. This city may never be completely rebuilt, there is too much money involved. But a street away you can see more fish markets. Fresh fruit. Tasty fresh juices.

A beautiful building that was empty for a long time has been taken over by a couple of young people. They have turned it into a cosy tea room, a small museum too, a puppet theatre and a place for children. A symbolic and hopeful place. There I meet a retired soldier who was a pilot and bomber in the war against Iran. He has no regrets about what he did. He laughs away the question whether he does so much charity because his conscience is bothering him. For years, the veteran has worked with fundraisers to help people in the old part of town financially. Among other things, he takes care of a widow with seven children and helps to rebuild her house.

John, who was asked to shoot footage of the start-up of the film school, tells of the horror of the time. His best friend fought with IS but they have lost contact. That former friendship can never be healed. Too much suffering has been caused. John finds Mosul conservative. Yet John doesn't want to leave. Together with others, he gives art lessons to children so that they can come to terms with their traumas. His family lives here and he is part of it. It's that simple. Every family lives here together. Little by little, people are hopeful and full of courage for life. So strong too. For years they have had harrowing stories but they cope with them. They have no other choice. Taking care of each other. No one thinks about it. That is the reality here.

But the reality is also that life in Mosul is very hard for many people. In our street there is one restaurant after another. There are 1.8 million people living in this city but many families never go out to eat because it is too expensive. I see little four-year-old girls selling bottles of water amidst the busy traffic. The many boys walking alone are part of the street scene here. Our fixer tells us that many young boys are orphaned by the war and live on the streets. And of course, there are still the camps where people are staying who still cannot go back to their homes. They are refugees in their own city.