Displaced Iraqis from war-wracked Mosul arrive at the Hamam al-Alil camp on March 20, 2017
Hamam al-Alil (Irak) (AFP) - 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 Islamic State group fighters.
"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," says Ahmad, a daily labourer who lives in government-held east Mosul.
Iraqi forces launched the offensive to recapture the city on October 17, with the support of the US-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
After seizing the city's eastern districts in January, the Iraqi forces began the operation to retake west Mosul from the jihadists on February 19, causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
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 kilometres (nine miles) 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.
- No news in months -
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 centres, 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 kilometres 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.
The fear that IS fighters might sneak out among the civilians is ever-present.
Not far off, Abu Omar has fled west Mosul with his wife and five of his children, and is waiting for his son-in-law who lives in east Mosul with one of his daughters.
He has not seen them in a year.
"No other people have been through what we have," says the Iraqi man in his 50s, who sports a greying beard and speaks under a pseudonym.
"All this could inspire a TV soap opera, a film, a novel...," he says, breaking off the interview as his son-in-law arrives.
They embrace briefly, solemnly, and immediately depart.