Baghouz, where the last black flag came down
Baghouz (Syria) (AFP)
It once flew over a chunk of the Middle East larger than Britain but on Saturday the Islamic State group's sinister black banner lay crumpled in the dust of its final bastion.
A few metres from the reedy banks of the mighty Euphrates, what was likely one of the last flags of the "caliphate" had been torn and trampled.
Near it was one of at least 10 discarded explosives belts spotted by AFP reporters in the last strip of land conquered by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
In a small and remote village near the Iraqi border, the nightmare of the "Islamic caliphate" has ended.
The encampment on the edge of the village of Baghouz where the jihadists made their last stand is a churned-up wasteland of tents and truck carcasses.
Music rings out from one of the SDF cars, and the applause of male and female fighters echoes across the hills surrounding the fallen jihadist encampment.
"Three days ago we clutched our weapons, trying to break forward even a few metres," a fighter called Rami says.
But "now we've finished with IS and its black banner and we've hoisted our own instead," the 33-year-old tells AFP.
On the rooftop of a battle-scarred building near the Euphrates, a large yellow SDF flag now flies in the breeze.
A small group of fighters have already removed their military uniforms, to slip on jeans, tracksuits and sandals.
- 'Get married' -
Just two days ago, they were combing the camp for holdout jihadists, when suddenly three suicide bombers jumped out from a tunnel wearing explosives belts.
"They were running, we were scared. We killed one, and the other two blew themselves up," says a 25-year-old fighter who gives his name as Ashkarani.
A fellow fighter was wounded and he had to carry him off to their armoured vehicle for evacuation, says the fighter from a small village in the wider province of Deir Ezzor says.
His wounded comrade is now in the Kurdish-held city of Qamishli further north and recovering, he says.
"It was just a light wound," adds Ashkarani, wearing a track suit rolled up above his ankles and sandals on his feet.
When victory was declared, he emptied his last cartridge into the air.
"We put music on. We started to dance," one of his friends interjects, laughing.
Ashkarani has already told his fiancee he and his comrades have finally won after a grinding months-long battle.
"I told her we'd finished and and we were coming home. She was happy," he says.
"We're expecting to get married in 10 or 20 days time."
At the foot of a hill, only charred cars and abandoned canvas remain of the cross-border "caliphate" that the extremist group declared in 2014 across large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
- Tunisians, Moroccans -
Amid the skeletons of scorched vehicles, sheets, plastic carpets and thick blankets flap in the wind, once hastily thrown over metal rods or even trees to form makeshift tents.
Some cover deep trenches dug out in the ground.
Behind them, the jihadists have left saucepans, plastic basins -- even a stove.
Ripped clothes cling onto the side of parched, brittle bushes.
All around, there are sedans, mini-buses, even water tankers. Their mangled bodywork and those windscreens that have survived are riddled with bullet holes.
Just moments before the SDF announced victory, the crackle and thud of mortar fire and the whistle of sniper bullets still sounded from the front line.
A plume of smoke spiralled into the sky.
Hisham Haroun, 21, says the SDF's best fighters were called in for the last two days of battle.
"We needed military expertise equivalent" to that of the last IS holdouts, says the young fighter, still in his camouflage fatigues.
"Those who held out until the end were mainly foreigners -- Tunisians, Moroccans, and Egyptians."
? 2019 AFP