By Ulf Laessing
HAMMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Some Iraqis in this town get massages in a spa or take muddy baths and relax in the morning sun on the banks of the Tigris. Others beg for food or rise at dawn to queue for water.
Hammam al-Alil, a town south of Mosul once famous throughout Iraq for its healing hot waters, is back in business after a U.S.-backed offensive retook the area from Islamic State militants and authorities reopened its spa.
This oasis of leisure now coexists, however, with camps housing more than 30,000 of the people displaced in the region by the campaign to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, its the last major city stronghold in Iraq.
"I come here three times a week," said 47-year old Ali Qader, a retired soldier, after showering with water from a natural spring. "It's refreshing and good for your skin."
Residents have been flocking back since Islamic State was expelled from the town in early November, ending the days when bathers had to wear a tunic covering them from knee to navel as part of the Sunni Muslim movement's strict modesty code.
"If you had only swimwear, Daesh (Islamic State) would whip you," said Wael Abdullah, 12, before diving into a pool.
"The hisbah came checking that everyone had the right dress," he said, referring to the religious police that monitored everything from men's beards to women's veils.
Across the street is an indoor pool where locals and soldiers taking a day off from the front get a soapy massage.
The spa used to be magnet for wellness tourists and rheumatism patients but had passed its heyday even before the Islamist militants arrived in 2014.
"We used to have visitors from Baghdad, the south and even the Gulf, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia," said Latif Mohammed, who was hired to help run the spa for 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8.58) a day. "It was built in the '80s but needs refurbishing."
The elegant hotels at the spa are now shuttered or bombed out because Islamic State fighters used to live there. A machine gun nest at the entrance shatters any sense of normality.
On Monday, the spa opened only at noon due to rumors of an Islamic State attack, said a federal police officer.
SPA TOWN CAMP
Upgrading the baths is probably the last priority for officials who, just 2 km (1.25 miles) away, also have to run one of the biggest camps for people fleeing the battle of Mosul.
Every five minutes or so, a bus pulls into Hammam al-Alil with more new arrivals. Up to 5,000 people come every day from the district or across the frontlines around Mosul, around 30 km (19 miles) to the north.
The United Nations said on Tuesday the total number of displaced since the offensive began in October had exceeded 300,000 and camps for them are being expanded to take in even more people expected to flee the fighting in and around Mosul's densely populated old city.
With tents packed sometimes with two families in one some spend their first night in a mass tent or outside. Many are in state of shock.
"We left at 1 a.m. to avoid Daesh snipers walking to the army checkpoint and arrived here in the evening," said 20-year old Omar Abdullah, who came with 20 family and fiends.
"We didn't get a place in Hammam al-Alil so we went to a mosque where the preacher took us to his apartment. Now we'll try another camp," he said.
While there's plenty of hot water at the spa, women in the tent city rise early to queue for the water truck that comes once a day.
"We have some 200 spa visitors everyday, locals, soldiers," said Mohammed, the spa worker. "There are also displaced people but many can't afford the 1,000 dinars entrance fee."
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)