MOSUL, IRAQ —
"Everyone was running from sniper fire like scattered ants," Mohammad Najim said a few hours after he and about a thousand other people had fled from Islamic State militants Thursday morning. "My wife and daughter fell under other people and I lost them."
With no identification on him, Najim, a former hotel manager, is unable to move past military checkpoints to search for them in the battle zone. His four other children all made it to safety after leaving their neighborhood, controlled by Islamic State extremists, but he doesn't even know how to start searching for 5-year-old Sooria and her mother, Imam.
"I heard gunfire and people shouting as they fell," he said. "They could be injured or dead and I know nothing."
With very few neighborhoods of Mosul still held by IS, Iraqi forces are inching forward, and escaped families say those who were left behind are awaiting their chance to run. In the chaos of the final throes of IS rule, aid workers say families are increasingly being torn apart as they flee.
More than 750,000 people have been displaced since the battle for Mosul intensified in October. U.N. officials estimate 100,000 people or more are still expected to flee.
Search is difficult
With more than 12 packed refugee camps in the deserts surrounding Mosul and many displaced families choosing to stay with friends or relatives or in rented housing, finding people is difficult at best.
Reuniting family members is a problem worsened by the scarcity of mobile phones among escapees. In IS-controlled territory, using a mobile phone can be punishable by death.
"It's like [newly arrived displaced families] have been taken out of the world," Nameer Usama said Friday. He is a management official at the Hammam Alil camp, the main reception hub for displaced families from Mosul. "People come knowing nothing."
At least seven other people are still missing among the families that arrived Thursday, he said.
Across a block of tents lined up in the desert dirt, a small boy with one leg, Bunyan, sits in a wheelchair. Doctors told his caretakers he appears to have lost the leg about a month ago. All they really know about him is what he tells them, which is very little.
"A mortar fell on my uncle's house and the shrapnel cut off my leg," Bunyan said in a squeaky voice.
They fled their home on Thursday, he continued, and his father put him on a bus that took him to the camp. Save the Children workers found Bunyan alone and placed him with a temporary foster family.
"When children are lost, they are often unable to give details about their past," said Ahmed Mahmoud, a Save the Children caseworker at the camp, who fled Mosul this spring as Iraqi soldiers swept into his neighborhood.
"My father didn't come here then," Bunyan said, appearing confused.
Lonely children are despondent
Family members can lose contact with each other after they board separate buses in the trip to Iraqi-controlled territory, another aid worker said.
While they search for his family, Bunyan looks despondent. He loves and misses his parents, and the only thing he wants is a leg.
"When I grow up, my father said he'll get me a new leg," he said.
In a massive, sweltering tent reserved for newly arrived families, Abdulkhader, a former oil ministry worker who also fled his home Thursday, said families know the risks when they run. IS militants have ordered civilians either to stay put or move back to Old Mosul, the most tightly held IS stronghold in the area.
Snipers watch for fleeing families, and Islamic State plants bombs on roadsides to deter fleeing civilians from taking cover there from incoming fire. Some families stayed locked in their homes with doors welded shut. In several neighborhoods, the bodies of fleeing civilians killed by IS extremists hang from lamp posts.
Specter of starvation
Not running as the battle moves closer is no longer an option for many. Families fleeing from IS have always cited food shortages and hunger as a reason to give up everything. Now, more and more of them say it is much worse, and they either must flee or face starvation.
"People are already dying from hunger, so they are willing to take any risk," Abdulkhader said.
Seated on a concrete floor in the tent for the newly displaced, families blamed IS for the food shortages. The militants are still eating well, they said.
"There were IS militants in the house next door to mine," said Ahmed, a taxi driver. "I told one of them, 'People are dying of hunger.' "
The gunman replied: "If they want food, they can work with us; we will give them everything. Otherwise, it's their problem."