In Syria, thousands flee last Isis territory with tales of horror: ‘We were starving there’

In Deir ez-Zor, meets families fleeing from the once mighty caliphate, in its dying days

Tuesday 29 January 2019 15:39
'There were airstrikes and bombings all the time. We were trying to get out for two months'
'There were airstrikes and bombings all the time. We were trying to get out for two months'
T

he trucks arrived just as night fell, pulling into a gravel clearing by the side of the road. From the back of each vehicle peered the faces of dozens of women and children, covered in a thick layer of dust. They were tired, hungry, cold and afraid. The sound of engines dimmed and were replaced by a cacophony of babies crying.

“We were starving there,” said Aisha Najjar, 55, from the darkness of a crowded truck bed. “There were airstrikes and bombings all the time. We were trying to get out for two months.”

Sareb, a young mother who gave only her first name, bounced her screaming nine-month-old son on her lap to try to calm him, but to no avail.

“He won’t stop crying. He needs water,” she said.

Hours earlier, these women had been among some of the last civilians still living in the Isis caliphate, which has been reduced to just two villages in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor after months of fighting.

Nidal Hamad, from the town of al-Qaim, in Iraq, with her granddaughter, who was injured when fighting forced them to flee to Syria

As the territory held by the group gets smaller by the day, civilians have been flooding out from the Isis enclave, each with a more horrifying story than the last. More than 20,000 have escaped over the past month, according to an official overseeing the process.

Since December, they have been under almost constant bombardment and completely cut off, as a few hundred mostly foreign Isis fighters make their last stand against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Hundreds of civilians have been reported killed in the offensive by airstrikes launched by the US-led coalition.

Thousands of Syrians flee last Isis territory: Richard Hall meets families fleeing from the once mighty caliphate in its dying days

But even when they have escaped the fighting they are still in danger. They are forced to walk days to reach a point safe enough for them to be picked up. They then face another two days travel in the back of a truck, with few chances to stop.

More than 12 children have died making this journey, or shortly after, in the past month. The International Rescue Committee, which works in the camp where the fleeing civilians will eventually end up, said that number “is increasing every day”.

“It’s a race against the clock to try and reach those most in need of urgent medical care,” said Wendy Taeuber, the organisation’s Syria director.

'It’s a race against the clock to try and reach those most in need of urgent medical care,' says Wendy Taeuber, the IRC's Syria director (Richard Hall/The Independent)

“People are arriving in a desperate state, having spent the last four years living under the horrors of Isis, and now escaping the ongoing conflict,” she added.

The Independent witnessed the evacuation of around 500 women and children on Friday, along with roughly 100 men. The scene was repeated all over again the next day, on a larger scale.

At another evacuation point in the desert near the border with Iraq, the trucks came six at a time, every 30 minutes or so. More than 1,300 women and children in total, and dozens of men. All of them had come from the last villages under Isis control.

As they stepped off the trucks, the families were instructed to sit on the ground in lines so they could be checked. The wind whipped sand into their faces as they rested.

There were airstrikes and bombings all the time. We were trying to get out for two months 

Aisha Najjar, 55 

Every so often an SDF fighter would arrive with piles of bread on the back of a truck, only to be mobbed by a crowd of desperate mothers. Emaciated children wandered aimlessly in the chaos of the desert outpost, others collapsed on the ground where they could.

“We are very tired. I had to carry my children and all my stuff,” said Noura Youssef, 21, originally from Raqqa. “We tried to leave many times, but the fighting was so bad. Isis was preventing a lot of people from leaving.”

She described a hellish living situation behind the caliphate lines.

“There is water but it is very dirty and polluted. All of us have illnesses because of it. My son survived on just a little bit of sugar and flour each day, just enough to keep him alive.”

The scale of the exodus has caught officials off guard. Many had underestimated the number of civilians still living in the small area under Isis control. The SDF said thousands more could still be trapped.

“Every day they are coming out,” said Khaled Naameh, an official with the Deir ez-Zor civil council, an administrative body set up by the SDF. “There is always more than we expect. It’s unbelievable.”

The evacuations are complicated by the ongoing fighting, and the fact that Isis members have been trying to hide among civilians. Although the caliphate may be nearing its end, the SDF is already preparing for Isis to regroup and mount an insurgency campaign.

The women and children are not above suspicion, either. Their next stop after this brief stopover is a detention camp, where they will be investigated for links to Isis.

Thousands of relatives of suspected Isis members, including British citizens, are currently being held in camps by the SDF, and there is no agreement on what should be done with them. Most countries are unwilling to take back the so-called ‘Isis families’ who came to Syria from abroad, leaving them living in limbo.

An SDF fighter hands out bread to the newly arrived families

Among those interviewed by The Independent were women from Iraq, Kazakhstan and Dagestan. All of them denied being related to Isis members.

Nidal Hamad said she came to Syria from her hometown of al-Qaim in Iraq to escape fighting when the Iraqi army came to recapture it from Isis.

“There were airstrikes all the time. Look what they did to my granddaughter,” she said, pushing a young girl forward, some of whose fingers were missing. “We were just trying to find safety.”

Hamad said she arrived in the town of Shaffa, which was under the control of Isis, and had been forced to flee again when the operation to liberate the last piece of Isis territory began in December. In the last few weeks they have been living the village of Baghouz.

“There was nothing. Nothing to eat, nothing to wash with. We just survived on vegetables.”

There were Syrians, too, who said the same. Zikia Imbrahim, 28, said she came from the town of Sureen, near the Turkish border, with her two children.

“We are civilians, we are not with Isis,” she said. “Everyone from my area joined Isis, so we were forced to leave with them when the fighting happened in Sureen.”

Officials doubt many of these stories.

Trucks full of women and children arrive from the last Isis-held areas

“We know there are Isis families among them, they didn’t come here for tourism,” said a Kurdish official involved with the process, who declined to be named. "But we don’t worry about that now. We consider them civilians when we receive them, and we help them. Then the intelligence services investigate.”

The men, he added, are another issue. They are also fleeing in large numbers, and officials believe that most who still remain in the small amount of territory held by Isis are linked to the group. As a result, they are subject to a much more stringent investigation.

While the women are asked cursory questions and sent to the camps, the men are separated, questioned extensively, and their names checked against a database.

At the evacuation site near the Iraqi border, the men are lined up in front of a Kurdish anti-terror fighter to have their fingerprints checked.

We know there are Isis families among them, they didn’t come here for tourism 

Kurdish official

“I used to be a taxi driver,” said Yasser Khamis, from Anbar province in Iraq, as he waited in line. “When the Iraqi army came we were displaced to Syria. I have four children and one is very sick.” Maher Hamad, from al-Qaim in Iraq, said he was a butcher.

The US has indicated that they believe many senior Isis leaders could be among those trying to escape. Kurdish intelligence officials and American special forces watched over the process. At least seven men from a few dozen were separated from the rest for being suspected Isis members. The rest were sent to the camp with their families where they face further investigation.

Many of the woman asked journalists about the whereabouts of their husbands and sons after they were separated. “Do you think they will be arrested?” enquired one. Most asked where they were being taken, and what happens to them now.