Searching for Othman

War. Displacement. Return. What these words really mean for Iraqis rebuilding their lives after so-called Islamic State.

The New Humanitarian
23 min readJul 22, 2019


Words and photos by Annie Slemrod, originally published July 2018.

It was late May 2016, and Othman was around three — no one knows exactly what day he was born. He was curled up on a mattress with his family, trying to ignore the sounds of war outside his small village near Fallujah. His baby brother, Louay, was sucking on a bottle, and his grandma, Hadoud, was in the next room, asking God to keep the fighting from coming any closer.

Her prayers were not answered. There were two loud booms, then screaming. Hadoud saw only dust and smoke. And then, by the light of a mobile phone, one of her grandsons pulled survivors and bodies out of the room where Othman had been trying to sleep.

Othman’s mother, Lina, brother Louay, and cousin Aisha were dead. He and his sister, Deena, who is less than a year younger than him, were bleeding from their bellies and faces. After a hasty burial, the surviving family members fled to a nearby village where, they had heard, the Iraqi army was waiting to bring them to safety as they escaped the control of so-called Islamic State.

When the family arrived, hundreds of men, including Othman’s grandfather and two uncles, were rounded up by militiamen and never seen again.

The family was bused to a desert camp, where they lived for months. When they finally made it home more than six months later, the room where Othman got his scars still smelled of burnt flesh.

By then, Othman, his face speckled black and abdomen embedded with shrapnel, had stopped speaking to almost everyone.

I met the boy I now know as Othman somewhere in the middle of his transition from regular old toddler with a sweet tooth (who his mom sometimes spanked when he was naughty) to timid five year old who seems sad most of the time.

The scars on his body were bright pink, and it looked as if he had bits of metal in his face.



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