A war zone is no place for children, but Mosul is full of them. During a recent assignment around the Iraqi city, Italian photographer Emanuele Satolli, with Jared Malsin, TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, turned his lens on how the battle and its aftermath were affecting the youth. They met boys and girls in the eastern section, which was liberated by Iraqi forces in January; the western section, part of which is still held by the Islamic State; and at a displacement camp southwest of Mosul.
There was a noticeable difference in the demeanor of the children depending on where the pair met them. “The kids from the east were more relaxed,” Satolli said. “On the western side, there was a presence next to them. We met kids who two, three days before were in ISIS territory. The sounds, the hiding at home, it was a traumatic experience for them,” he added. At the camp, “they were in this tent that wasn’t their house, away from the street where they normally used to play. It was like they were suspended in time.”
With each children they met, Satolli and Malsin asked them a few questions. What was your most recent meal? Some said rice, others yogurt or eggs. What is your favorite toy? A soccer ball, a kitchen set with plates and tea cups and a kettle, even toy guns. What do you want to be when you grow up? A doctor. A teacher.
“It was an amazing experience because with simple questions, we got very close to the kids,” Satolli said. “It was an excuse to see another side of the war in Mosul.”
Asked which of the encounters stuck out most to him, Satolli said eight-year-old Ali Bashar Ali. The boy lived with his family in his grandfather’s house in the Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood. While fleeing his home, Ali was hit in the foot by a stray bullet. “He was very direct,” Satolli recalled of their meeting on April 1. “He was very spontaneous.” Ali placed himself on the chair and let his injured foot dangle.
A few days later, Satolli stopped in front of the house where he met Ali. He got out and showed him and his father TIME’s Instagram post with Ali’s portrait. “He was happy but he didn’t say anything,” Satolli said of the boy. “He just smiled.”
Emanuele Satolli is an Italian photographer based in Istanbul. Follow him on Instagram @emanuelesatolli.
Andrew Katz, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Senior Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.