Hamam al-Alil, Iraq- Surrounded by displaced Iraqis, Ahmad strides up and down a muddy stretch of land near Mosul, mobile phone in hand, desperately looking for his aunt and uncle.
Dressed in an elegant grey coat over his tracksuit, the 27-year-old is hoping to see his relatives for the first time in six months after they fled west Mosul, where Iraqi forces are battling ISIS jihadists.
“I can’t describe how it feels to be seeing my family again, especially after everything reported in the media — the fighting, the hunger, the humiliation,” Ahmad, a daily laborer who lives in government-held east Mosul, tells Agence France Presse.
Families living of either side of the River Tigris, which divides the city in two, have been unable to see each other since its five bridges were destroyed in the fighting.
They made only rare phone calls to their loved ones, always at night and whispering to avoid being caught by the jihadists.
“We could ring them only once a week. They said they were fine. But turning on their phone was enough to put their lives in danger,” Ahmad says, as he stands on the lookout, his black sandals and socks caked in mud.
“I can’t wait. We’re going to bring them home,” says Ahmad, who has been waiting for his aunt and uncle for over two hours near the camp at Hamam al-Alil, some 15 kilometers from Mosul.
On several occasions, someone else searching for a family member comes up to Ahmad and asks to borrow his dated mobile phone.
Around him, hundreds of civilians sit on the ground, their clothes coated in sludge, surrounded by their meagre belongings and children in clothes insufficient to keep out the rain and cold.
A truck pulls up to deliver food aid.
A crowd surges forward, a flurry of arms stretching skywards to try and catch a box thrown by one of the volunteers.
A soldier shoots his assault rifle in the air in a futile attempt to calm the crowd.
More than 180,000 people have fled west Mosul, the Iraqi government says.
About 111,000 have sought shelter in 17 nearby camps and reception centers, it says, while many others have stayed with relatives.
Mohamed Badr Abed is in Hamam al-Alil to pick up his sister’s family and bring them back to his village around 30 kilometers from Mosul.
He went without news of his sister for what seemed an eternity, until a phone call earlier that day.
“She called me at 7:00 am and asked me to come and get her,” says the electricity company employee.
“I hadn’t heard her voice for six months. I had no idea what had become of them,” he says, his face breaking into a huge smile as he remembers seeing her again.
“I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it,” says the balding man in his 40s.
His sister is already en route to this village, but his brother-in-law and four nephews are still undergoing thorough security checks by Iraqi authorities, which fear that ISIS militants might sneak out among the civilians.