In Mosul, the missing are everywhere, their families hunting through the ruined Iraqi city for traces of lost husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.
Squatting on the edge of a crater under the burning sun of an Iraqi summer, Khaled Fizaali watches as a digger of the Civil Defence service pulls up a jumble of iron bars, concrete and wood.
The smell of decay rises as the excavator reveals human remains and Fizaali quickly descends from his perch of rubble in west Mosul.
But it’s not his wife Sarah, 31, or his seven-year-old girl Touqa, who he has been desperate to find for the last two months.
“It’s a neighbour, I recognise the clothes,” he says. “I know they’re under there. My brother was with them when it was bombed.”
Nineteen members of Fizaali’s family died in the May 19 air strike on the building, where jihadist fighters had taken up positions on the roof. Only his brother survived.
Seventeen bodies were found in a first search a month ago, including the remains of Fizaali’s 10-year-old son.
Fizaali has no illusions; his wife and daughter are dead.
“But what’s important for me is to find their bodies, this would bring me peace. I could visit them when I wanted to. When I go to my son’s grave, I feel calmer.”
It took more than eight months of heavy fighting, air strikes and shelling to dislodge the Islamic State group from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and once the jihadists’ biggest urban bastion.
In the process significant parts of the city, and especially west Mosul’s Old City, were pulverised, leaving months of work ahead for Civil Defence workers to clear out the debris and search for the many still missing.
There are likely still hundreds, possibly even thousands, of bodies left to find.
“We don’t have any estimates,” says Major Rabia Ibrahim Hassan of the Civil Defence, as his team works in the rubble nearby.
“We can’t know, because IS moved people from house to house to use them as human shields. People still come to us today to tell us they think they have loved ones buried in this or that place.”
A few minutes later his men pull up a skull, which like the other remains that they find will be sent to the forensic department of the Al-Salam hospital in Mosul’s Wadi Hajar district.
Every day “no less than 30 or 40 bodies” arrive at the hospital, according to Dhiyaeddin Shamseddin, the deputy head of the service. In the last month, 850 bodies have passed through, of which 180 have not been identified.
A few dozen people arrive every day to enquire about lost friends and family, he says, like Zahraa and Hajar Nashwan who came to ask about their big brother Ahmed. They have had no news of him since their home was bombed two months ago.
“We made it out alive but we feel like we died,” says Zahraa, the older of the two.
“People say that even if you lose all your money and possessions, it’s not so bad, the important thing is that you still have the people you love. But we’ve lost both.”
Hajar, 18, says they have done all they can to find their brother.
“We searched in the rubble, we went to the checkpoints, we went to the camp (for the displaced) at Hamam al-Halil, we found nothing,” she says. “I don’t know if we will know some day. It will be up to God.”
But for those spending their days searching the devastated streets of Mosul, there’s always some hope.
“The other day we found eight people who survived in a cave under the rubble for 25 days,” Hassan of the Civil Defence says.
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