Hundreds limp out of besieged Syria jihadist enclave
Villagers and suspected jihadists leave Baghouz, Islamic State’s last stronghold, as SDF push for more fighters to surrender
Baghouz — Veiled women carrying babies and wounded men on crutches hobbled out of Baghouz on Wednesday after US-backed forces pummelled the last jihadist village in eastern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leading the assault expected more fighters to surrender with their families in tow before moving deeper in the Islamic State (IS) group’s last redoubt.
Bandaged and bedraggled, gaggles of suspected jihadists in long brown robes limped away from the hellscape of Baghouz across fields of yellow flowers to reach an SDF screening centre.
The tiny village on the banks of the Euphrates River where diehard IS fighters have made a bloody last stand has regurgitated unexplained numbers of people.
Kurdish officers in the SDF and aid groups have voiced their surprise that the flow of evacuees never seemed to dry up after weeks of evacuations.
On Tuesday alone, “3,500 people were evacuated from Daesh-held territory,” said SDF spokesperson Mustefa Bali, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
About 10% of the 57,000 people who have fled IS’s last bastion since December were jihadists trying to slip back into civilian life, SDF officers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have said.
The operation to smash the last dreg of the “caliphate” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in 2014 resumed last Friday after a long humanitarian pause.
The assumption was that close to no families remained holed up in Baghouz and that those who did were refusing to surrender and choosing to die there.
The deluge of fire unleashed by SDF artillery and coalition air strikes at the weekend appears to have broken the determination of some families.
Syrians, Iraqis and jihadists who travelled to the caliphate from France, Finland and other countries turned themselves in to Kurdish troops.
“There’s still lots of people inside,” said Safia, a 24-year-old Belgian woman who was among those trucked out by the SDF on Tuesday, adding that her French husband was still inside.
Western forces from the US-led coalition, which also includes France, one of the main purveyors of foreign fighters to IS, could be seen looking for wanted individuals among the new arrivals.
On Tuesday, the wife of French jihadist Jean-Michel Clain confirmed her husband had been killed in Baghouz, days after his brother, Fabien.
The brothers were featured in a video claiming responsibility for a 2015 shooting rampage in the streets of Paris that remains France’s deadliest ever terrorist attack.
Clain’s widow, Dorothee Maquere, fled the embattled enclave with her five children and said she did not want to return to France.
“I want to be left alone after everything I’ve been through … some place where I can live, where I won’t be bothered, where I can live my life.”
More than 50,000 evacuees have been squeezed into the Kurdish-run camp of al-Hol, where the foreigners await a decision on their fate.
Their countries of origin have been reluctant to take them back, wary of the security risk some of them could pose and of a negative reaction from the public. The SDF have warned, however, that they would not carry that burden much longer and other avenues are being explored.
Iraq has already confirmed receiving 14 French nationals from Syria to be tried there.
Those filing out of Baghouz are often weak, after living for weeks with scarce food and hiding from bombs in underground shelters.
The authorities in al-Hol and the other camps where evacuees are dispatched are overwhelmed and entire families have had to sleep rough.
“Families arriving in al-Hol camp have been without access to health and other essential services for a long period of time and ... in a fragile state, compounded by the fatigue of the journey to the camp,” the UN office for human rights said.
Dozens of children are unaccompanied and the toll of those who died shortly after arriving or en route from Baghouz keeps growing.
“Ninety deaths have been reported; two thirds of them children under the age of five,” it said, adding that the main causes of death were hypothermia, pneumonia, dehydration or malnutrition complications.
The jihadists are hugely outnumbered in Baghouz.
The Kurdish-led SDF, who launched their broad offensive on remaining IS strongholds in the Euphrates Valley six months ago, said they expect a victory within days.
The capture of Baghouz would mark the end of IS territorial control in the region and deal a death blow to the caliphate, which at its peak more than four years ago was the size of the UK and ruled millions of people.