Standing by the rows of tents that line the dusty plains of northern Iraq, groups of men and children cover their faces from the searing sun. Twenty-five miles to the west, their home city of Mosul lies in ruins after a brutal nine-month battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters. The house-to-house fighting and aerial bombardment reduced entire neighborhoods to blackened heaps of rubble. The mass of decaying bodies lying beneath the debris piled along Mosul’s streets creates an unbearable stench of death that moves back and forth with the breeze. For now, these families have taken refuge outside the city, here at Khazer camp.
During the nearly endless rounds of fighting that resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, according to unofficial estimates, some 846,000 people were displaced from their homes in the city. As families fled, they took with them what few possessions they could carry. While some managed to leave with livestock or even cars, many others left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Often, there is little function or utility to these items — a broken watch, a child’s garment, a handful of worn photographs. They are tokens of the life — and the people — they left behind.