Exclusive: Fleeing the IS group’s ‘caliphate’ in Syria
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A mass exodus is under way in Syria as the last residents of the Islamic State group's so-called "caliphate" flee to take refuge in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Raking up clouds of dust and sand, the trucks emerge from the Syrian desert carrying some of the last residents of the Islamic State (IS) group’s collapsing, self-declared “caliphate”. They are fleeing the final battle.
“We are besieged, we have nowhere to retreat or flee. All we have now is God,” says a fully veiled woman, with only her eyes showing, sitting at the back of a truck.
“We were hungry, they were bombing day and night, look at the state we are in," reveals a bearded man, his face chalk-white with sand from the journey. "I tried to escape twice, the first time my son was killed and my wife was wounded.”
Inside the car, his wife explains that bullets tore through the vehicle. “I was wounded here, here and here,” she points to her face covered in a veil. “I was holding my son. He died in my arms.”
‘My husband is an IS fighter’
The heavy fighting is exacerbating the humanitarian situation, with disease and famine spreading inside the IS group’s last stronghold.
“There isn’t enough to eat for me to produce milk, and there is no milk at the market,” says a woman holding a wailing toddler.
IS group militants blend in with the civilians, so the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screen everyone, separating the men from the women. Squatting in the sand, a group of men have been detained for further investigation.
Women are also considered dangerous, almost none of them have decided to remove the full face veil. Some declare openly that they are married to fighters.
“My husband is still inside, he is one of them. He is an IS fighter, I’m not going to lie, he is with IS group,” says one.“They will lose the territory, but I can tell you they will retreat into the desert. The veterans, those who fought with al Qaeda, they will disappear into the desert and leave their families here.”
Foreign women in eastern Syria
SDF intelligence officers take each person’s fingerprints and photographs. Among the 500 people who have just arrived, there are a number of foreign women who had travelled to the so-called caliphate to marry jihadists.
One of the parked trucks is full of Turkish nationals. Another group of women and children are waiting in an SUV. They let us film them, but refuse to answer any questions.
But our wireless microphone picks up the conversation inside the SUV.
“They have arrested my husband,” says one woman.
“Where is he from?” asks another.
“Russia,” comes the response.
“How about you?” asks the first woman.
This meeting point in the desert is only the first stop for these refugees. Their trip continues towards special camps where they will be interrogated and further scrutinised.