NEAR MOSUL, Iraq -- Muhaiman was only 9 years old when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, in 2014. He found himself trapped, terrified and separated from his mother.
He said he thought he’d never see her again.
“I thought that I was already dead,” he said. “During the fighting there was bombing right next to us and our neighbors were killed.”
He and his family were among the tens of thousands who fled when ISIS first invaded. But when his father Qassim decided to risk going back to Mosul to grab some belongings, Muhaiman begged to join him.
That decision proved to be a dreadful mistake. When Muhaiman and his father tried to leave, they found that ISIS had cut off all escape routes out of the city.
“They raided our home,” Muhaiman remembers. “They took my video game and threw it out of the window. Our apartment is on the third floor.”
For two and a half long years, his mother Zeinab feared the worst. There were rumors ISIS had executed her husband. There was no way of reaching her son.
“I began to lose hope,” Zeinab said. “Especially after the bombing started. I had nothing left but tears and prayers.”
Muhaiman finally managed to escape when Iraqi forces liberated his neighborhood in eastern Mosul.
By pure chance, a family friend noticed Muhaiman in news footage and promptly called his mother.
“What did we do?” Zeinab said. “We just ran out on the street. We started running the streets looking for a taxi. We just wanted to get there as soon as we could.”
And then the moment neither had dared dream about.
Asked what ran through his mind when he first saw his mother, Muhaiman smiled.
“I was very happy,” he recalled. “I became emotional, and there were all those TV cameras filming the moment.”
Now Zeinab can’t bear to have him more than an arm’s length away.
“No, even now, I can’t believe it,” Zeinab said. “To this moment, at night, he reaches out to me and says, ‘Mom, I can’t believe I’m in your arms.’”
A barren and dusty camp outside of Mosul is home now, and for the foreseeable future, they don’t have much. But they have each other.