The 16-year-old boy had been following us as we made our way through Nargizlia. It is the most recent addition to the camps housing the 135,000 people who have fled the fighting as the Iraqi government tries to retake Mosul, its second-largest city, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group.
Ghazi, who had been hiding behind tents each time we stopped to speak with someone, finally approached. He quietly told me he was living in a tent with a group of unaccompanied men and boys he didn’t know. He looked at me, so full of fear at his surroundings, and asked if there was anything I could do to help him join his family, who had been sent to a different camp.
I took him to the manager’s office and found a staff member who said he would take Ghazi in to see the manager. We had to leave, it was late in the day, but it absolutely broke my heart to leave this boy, with no guarantee that he would be able to join his family.
The people in these camps were terrorised by ISIL and have had to leave their lives behind. Some were separated from family members in the chaos in 2014, when ISIL took over the region.
Some were separated from family members by accident as they fled recently, and others were separated from the men and older boys in their family for security checks, to make certain they aren’t ISIL fighters.
At least two camps prohibit visitors and ban mobile phones, ostensibly for security reasons. Ghazi’s was confiscated as he arrived at the camp’s euphemistically named “reception centre”, or screening facility. This makes the displaced significantly more vulnerable – those whose loved ones were detained for alleged affiliation with ISIL have no way of reaching out to contacts to help locate them.
Since the first days of the Mosul operation in October, husbands and sons in the four Kurdish Regional Government-controlled (KRG) camps I have visited have come to me asking for help to rejoin their families. They happened to leave the city on a different bus from their families, either because they were held back in screening, or because they left Mosul at a different time.
Ghazi’s parents fled Mosul in a wave of escapees, while he stayed behind to check on an ailing uncle. They called him as they reached the Iraqi security forces checkpoint to say they were being sent to the Qaymawa camp. He then fled Mosul alone.
When he reached the security checkpoint, he asked the soldiers to send him to join his family. But they ignored him and sent him with hundreds of other displaced families to Nargizlia.
One woman in Nargizlia told me that when the 100 families from her area of Mosul escaped from the ISIL-controlled territory and reached an area under KRG military control, the women, girls and young boys were separated from the men and boys aged 15 and above in their family, and all of them were held in a school, in different rooms.
When buses arrived to take them all to the camp, this woman’s husband and son were missing. She asked security forces at the “reception centre” and later at the camp about their fate, but she said they refused to answer her.
Now she is sitting in her tent, unable to leave the camp and without even a phone to call any friends, family, or international organisations for help in locating her loved ones.
We escaped from prison, just to be put in another prison
Aid workers told me that they have made some, very minor, progress around advocating for freedom of movement of displaced people or to reunite them with their families, as a result of the demands on them to provide other urgent services for the people in these camps. But it has not been their priority.
One worker said to me candidly, when they speak to camp residents, free movement is not their main complaint.
But when I ask residents about their human rights concerns, the feeling that they are being held in open air prisons and the impact this has on their ability to communicate with their families is one of the first things they regularly raise.
One man at Nargizlia begged for my help to leave the camp, to meet a 2-year-old daughter he never met who is now in Kirkuk, a major city 160km away, and to mourn the death of his mother with his siblings, who escaped Mosul before ISIL took control.
He told me, “We escaped from prison, just to be put in another prison,” and shook his head as he walked away.
Belkis Wille is the senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.