Desperate exodus from militants' final village

A woman and two children who had fled the fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS militants in the Syrian village of Baghuz waiting to be screened and registered by the SDF on Sunday.
A woman and two children who had fled the fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS militants in the Syrian village of Baghuz waiting to be screened and registered by the SDF on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DEIR AL-ZOUR PROVINCE (Syria) • The men who emerge from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) last sliver of land are ordered to sit behind one of two orange lines spray-painted on the rocky desert floor: Syrians behind one, and Iraqis behind the other.

The women, wearing face-covering veils and clutching toddlers, huddle in a different spot, also separated by nationality.

Several of the escapees are so badly wounded from incoming fire that they have to be carried to this open vista on mattresses to surrender to the US-backed coalition.

By mid-morning, US Special Forces start arriving in a convoy of armoured vehicles. The men suspected of being ISIS fighters are ordered to approach in single file, their arms outstretched, as they are searched by troops and a sniffer dog. Then, they are fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed.

In the last two weeks, thousands of people have been streaming out of the village of Baghuz, the last speck of land under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, an area where the group once ruled a dominion the size of Britain.

That state is all but gone. In the last month, the group has gone from holding three villages to two to just one. The militants are now trapped in an area about the size of Central Park in New York.

To the west, they are hemmed in by Syrian government forces. To the south is the Iraqi border, where Iraqi troops are holding the line. From the north and east, they are being fought by a US-backed Kurdish and Arab militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. As the noose has tightened, even those who joined the caliphate in its earliest days are trying to save themselves.

Most of those who have made it to this spot in the desert in recent days are the families of the militants - their multiple wives and numerous children - with only a small number of locals originally from the area mixed in, said Kurdish officials.

Out of food, the families say they have been reduced to boiling a weed that grows in highway medians.

Large numbers of the escapees are foreigners, especially Iraqis who lived under ISIS before fleeing to this corner of south-eastern Syria when Iraq's cities were liberated.

 

But among the escapees who arrived in the last week were also Germans, French, Britons, Swedes and Russians, a testament to the group's broad appeal, which lured some 40,000 recruits from 100 countries to its nascent state.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2019, with the headline 'Desperate exodus from militants' final village'. Print Edition | Subscribe