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Saba“The Mona Lisa of Mosul” - Owner Of The Saddest Smile

Saba photographed by Iraqi photographer Ali Al-fahdawi in 2016

Three years separate two photos taken by the Iraqi photographer Ali Alfahdawi of an Iraqi child named Saba.

The above photo was taken on March 16, 2016 by Ali Al-Fahdawi at Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, during war between Iraqi forces and Islamic State group. More than 98,000 people found refuge in camps established near Mosul.

In the morning of one day in March 2016, Ali was carried his camera accompanied by the front lines of the Iraqi forces during the attack on the village of Badush, near Mosul. 

Ali, who covered the wars that took place in Iraq, was taking photos to document all that was taking place on the ground, “particularly the humanitarian situation”. Ali received a call from a contact in the Iraqi forces saying that there were escaping families coming towards them from the ISIS-controlled area, including the girl Saba.

“I was watching the faces of the children who were running away out of fear of ISIS when this girl caught my attention,” Ali narrated. "When she saw me, I smiled a little and (she) had a smile on her face and a sadness. It was the decisive moment to take the photo."

Horror was clear in her eyes and despite the tears dropping on her face, she smiled at Ali’s camera. Back then, Ali was working for Reuters.

That photo went viral and it became know as “the Mona Lisa of Mosul”. Ali did not expect the photo to reach this level of popularity, or as he put it, “people will forget it after a few days of its spreading; and thus, the photo would vanish when the event is forgotten.” However, the photo kept spreading everywhere on social media platforms. 

A lot of people were asking Ali questions about the fate of this girl and her address; and above all, whether she was still alive or not!  

All such questions prompted Ali to search for the girl again and that took nearly 3 years.

Saba photographed at the beginning of 2020

Over the following years, Ali visited the refugee camps hosting the families who ran away from Mosul carrying with him Saba’s photo in an attempt to try to find her. However, no one had ever seen or heard of her. 

The two finally did meet entirely by coincidence, through a photo of her posted on Facebook. Luckily, the same photo taken by Ali was posted by Saba’s uncle on the uncle's personal page. “I asked her uncle, ‘Do you know where she is?’ He replied, ‘Yes’,” Ali narrated. The girl returned home after spending years in a refugee camp in Erbil.

Ali drove immediately from Baghdad to Mosul which is approximately 450 kms away, and eventually his dream of meeting her again came true. “I was extremely happy that she was still alive,”

Saba went back to her home in Mosul with her family, but the situation was not good at all as her house was demolished and her father had been injured during a bombing attack on the city and a shell had fallen on their house. 

“Did you see the photo of Saba?”, a question posed by the Iraqi photographer to Saba’s family who had come across her photo on the cars of the various humanitarian agencies that were helping the displaced people. 

“I felt proud to see her family reacting to seeing the photo. It is a photo that depicts all the pain and displacement the Iraqi families had suffered. In short, Saba represents a great human message narrating the story of war and injustice,” Ali added.   


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