They climbed down from the trucks in a cloud of dust. More than 1,000 women and children had just left the last few square miles of Isis-held territory, broken and exhausted from fleeing the last battle.
Waiting for them at the screening point in the Syrian desert last month were stern-looking Kurdish intelligence officials and US special forces soldiers. As far as they were concerned, these families who had stayed in the caliphate until its dying days were willing supporters of Isis.
More than 20,000 women and children have gone through the same process in the past two months, before moving on to al-Hol displacement camp further north. Shamima Begum, the British teenager who fled her home in Bethnal Green to join Isis, would have made the same journey not so long ago.
At times, there seemed to be more foreigners there than Syrians. Women from Iraq, Kazakhstan, even as far afield as Russia. “Isis brides”, they are called.
“They didn’t come here for tourism,” said one Kurdish official, curtly. His implication was that these people were civilians, but they were not entirely innocent.
But as I walked among the tired families, slumped on the ground, I could find no one who was willing to admit to being a willing citizen of the caliphate they had just left.
“We are civilians, we are not with Isis,” said Zikia Imbrahim, a 28-year-old Syrian woman from the town of Sureen, near the Turkish border, with her two young children.
“Everyone from my area joined Isis, so we were forced to leave with them when the fighting happened in Sureen.”
A number of Iraqi women told stories of being swept into the caliphate by fighting elsewhere, all the way to the last Isis holdout in Deir ez-Zor. Their husbands had come with them but were not fighters, they assured me.
They were no doubt afraid of how they might be treated by the Kurdish soldiers if they admitted to being part of the group. But it was more than that. They knew it was over. Some of them at least were regretful for having embarked on this journey, if not for the crimes Isis carried out against others then for the ruin it had led them to.
The last few months had been a living hell, they said. They had been without food for much of it, living under a barrage of airstrikes. This was not the life that Isis propaganda had promised.
That is what makes Begum’s lack of contrition so striking. She was a 15-year-old child when she left London to join Isis, but now 19, and an adult woman, she seems still reluctant to disavow the group.
“I don’t regret coming here,” she told The Times in an interview in al-Hol camp. She described life in the caliphate as “normal”, and in the same breath spoke of seeing a severed head, which “didn’t faze me at all”.
“It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she said of the victim.
Begum was legally a child when she joined Isis. Now nine months pregnant with her third child (the first two died, she says), she said she wanted to return home to the UK.
“I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child,” she said.
She spoke of the “oppression” of life under Isis, but also expressed regret for having left the caliphate.
“I was weak,” she said. “I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved.”
When I read her words, my thoughts went to the Iraqi and Syrian families collapsed on the desert floor. They were scared of what lies ahead, Begum does not appear to be.
Perhaps she anticipates her British passport will afford her some protection or a way out that those other women will not have. Western privilege, from someone who still holds allegiance to a group committed to the west’s destruction.
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