February 27, 2019
By Ellen Francis
DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Hundreds more people of many nationalities streamed out of Islamic State’s last enclave in Syria under escort from U.S.-backed forces on Wednesday, part of an exodus of both its supporters and victims from its final shred of land.
Part of Baghouz, a tiny cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border, is all that remains to Islamic State of the “caliphate” straddling the two countries which its leader proclaimed in 2014.
Women from Iraq, Syria, Russia, Azerbaijan and Poland, an Indonesian boy and enslaved, traumatized Yazidi girls were among those to emerge over the past 48 hours from the caravans of trucks that trundled to an assembly point outside the enclave.
Around 40,000 people have come out over three months, including 15,000 since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced a final assault to capture it on Feb. 9, said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
The number surpassed initial estimates and has delayed SDF plans to storm the enclave or force the remaining hardened foreign fighters holed up inside to surrender.
As 15 trucks arrived on Wednesday, hundreds of women in full face veils clambered out along with children and stood in line to be searched and given bread and water.
They waited in a bitter cold wind and swirling dust for the onward journey to al-Hol and other camps for displaced people in northeast Syria. Two ambulances waited to the side and warplanes flew overhead.
Some 78 people have died reaching the camp or soon afterwards over three months, the World Health Organisation said, two-thirds of them babies. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid agency working in northeast Syria, said it was aware of two more babies dying on Wednesday.
“As many of the new arrivals are pregnant women close to their due date, there is a real need to increase maternity services in the camp,” said the IRC.
Men who came off the trucks were searched and interrogated. Several were taken aside and made to kneel on the ground, an arid steppe green in places from recent rains. Some had had feet amputated, some others were on crutches.
Since halting Islamic State’s advance at the town of Kobani on the Turkish border in early 2015, fighters from the SDF have fought it back across northern and eastern Syria under an intense U.S.-led coalition air campaign.
Some men kneeling in line said they were not fighters but Islamic State administrators who had had no part in violence. Other Syrian men said they had not worked at all for Islamic State but ended up in its enclave as bus drivers or traders.
“Our special forces investigate the identities of the men in case there are terrorists who infiltrate with civilians,” said Bali.
While searching people leaving Baghouz, the SDF has found bombs, suicide vests and gun silencers, he said.
The varied backgrounds of those who came out attested to the way Islamic State drew in people from across the world, and swept up Syrians and Iraqis in its cruel rule.
An 11-year-old Indonesian boy said he had been in Syria for four years, brought by his parents to join the group’s caliphate. They had lived in Iraq and in eastern Syria, he said, and he had learnt Koran and used weapons.
His mother died in the bombardment and his father, a fighter, had left Baghouz with him and was now detained, leaving him alone and far from home.
SUPPORTERS AND VICTIMS
On Tuesday two very young Yazidi girls came out of Baghouz on a truck with phone numbers scrawled on their arms. They had been grabbed by Islamic State fighters in the Sinjar region of Iraq and made captive. The SDF will try to reunite them with their families in Iraq, it said.
But many of those emerging from Baghouz still supported the organization which had enslaved those children, pointing to its lingering threat.
Marwa, a 19-year-old Iraqi woman, said she had come to Syria after her father had been arrested and her brother killed in an air strike in Iraq.
“I feel like I’m in a dream. I left Islamic State and came here, I came out of a dream,” she said.
Umm Hisham, a young woman from Aleppo in Syria, said the situation in Baghouz was miserable. “Everyone is dying. Hundreds of sisters are dying. The children are dying of hunger,” she said.
Her husband, an Islamic State member, was injured by sniper fire and insisted that she leave the enclave with their two small children so he could seek treatment.
She had been willing to die inside. “I do not regret joining Islamic State. No I do not regret it… it is the same death if I die it here or in Baghouz,” she said.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)