Toiling up Syrian cliff, hundreds in exodus from dying IS 'caliphate'


Baghuz (Syria) (AFP)

Trudging up an ochre cliff-face in eastern Syria, veiled women, wounded men and dusty children make a final journey out of the Islamic State group's crumbling redoubt.

Under the drizzle of a dark brewing sky, their exodus Thursday from the last dregs of the extremist group's "caliphate" in eastern Syria has tones of an apocalypse.

They are hundreds to plod up the steep winding dust path, in silence only broken by the odd crackling of machine-guns and the cries of young children

Fleeing their smoldering encampment in the riverside village of Baghouz, they walk into territory held by the US-backed Syrian forces who have been fighting them for months.

Women dressed from head to toe in black stumble under the weight of bags bulging with belongings -- one with a toothbrush poking out.

A woman clutches to her chest a baby swaddled in a coloured blanket. Another carries two toddlers, one on each hip.

Another still loses her balance, but her companions catch her as she falls, then push and pull to bring her back onto her feet.

A little girl trips and falls in the dirt, losing a tiny pink sandal. She puts the shoe back on, and carries on.

By her side, her brother moves forward on his hands and knees.

Their mother has her hands full with their belongings, and appears unable to help.

- Blood stains -

As she catches a glimpse of journalists, a dust-covered little girl bursts into tears.

A woman wearing a wide brown-coloured velvet robe, limps forward. She stubs her toe, wailing briefly in pain.

The hundreds leaving are mainly IS fighters and their families, forces fighting them say.

The men are of all ages, many are wounded. They are hunched over on crutches. One has an eye patch, the other an arm in a sling.

Dried blood stains streak grubby beige trousers.

Some men are wrapped in thick woollen kaftans, but nearly all sport thick black or greying beards.

"The situation is dramatic -- you know that," one of the men says.

His face wrapped in a red-and-white scarf so only his eyes are visible, one man makes his way on crutches improvised out of tree branches.

An old man hobbles up, his calf smothered in bandages, his arm around a US-backed fighter helping him along.

"I come from the country of Imam Bukhari -- Uzbekistan," he says, referring to the Uzbekistan-born ninth century Islamic scholar.

"The camp. Many wounded," he says in Arabic with a faint accent.

- Pushchairs abandoned -

Among those leaving the last patch of the "caliphate" declared in 2014 when it stretched across a swathe of Syria and Iraq, many are foreigners.

Some men say they are Iraqis. Some children appear to hail from Asia, while another is blond.

A black man tries to hide his face from the cameras.

At the top of the hill, they will be searched and men suspected of being IS fighters detained.

Women and children will be trucked north to already overcrowded camps for the displaced.

The edge of the path is littered with baggage abandoned along the way: pushchairs, clothes, blankets, suitcases left gaping open.

An official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces says the cliff-side path is the only one protected from jihadist fire.

"When there are heavy clashes, people use this passage," SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin says.

Among the latest wave, a man concealing his face under a black scarf carries the arched, motionless body of a young boy across his arms.

The barefoot boy's T-shirt is pulled up, revealing skin stretched over a skinny belly, ribs jutting out.

"Wounded," the man tells journalists, his eyes remaining fixed in front on him.