Feeling the breath of defeat on their necks, the militants in the Islamic State group have done their best to remain ruthless and organized until the last possible second. The group has kept their institutions on a functioning level in the last part of their territory in Syria, while they continue to give money and food to their supporters, and their fighters and religious police continue to impose their reign of brutality and fear. The relentless militants are trying to find a way to get one last win. During the past few weeks, ISIS has securely evacuated more than 10,000 of their wounded and exhausted followers. At this point, they’re just looking for a way to survive long-term so they can continue their fight. The militant group is mostly comprised of foreigners, like Iraqis and Central Asians, as well as some Syrian fighters. As of right now, they’re in the midst of their final battle, hiding in tunnels and caves inside the last city they have control of, Baghouz. Since this past Friday, they have done everything they can to resist the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic forces that are giving them a beating in an effort to push them out of the area for good.
Approximately two dozen evacuees have described the final days of ISIS to The Associated Press. They spoke of a time when ISIS’s previously powerful institutions withstood the oncoming pressure while they controlled the provinces and their fighters concentrated on maintaining control of the area. Every person who spoke to the AP asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the group or punishment for being connected to the group. Most of the people that were evacuated are related to members of the militant group. Most of them are a part of shattered families who have lost their loved ones, but regardless of that, they’re wounded and hungry women, men, and children. Despite their losses, some of them are still die-hard believers of their cause, who are broken and angry by the collapse of their regime.
Widows of the group have said that the monthly stipends they used to receive were replaced by handouts of food, and even that has been happening less frequently because they’re running out of supplies. The widows continued to live together in houses that were administered by ISIS, even when the militants moved into tents. The group’s money transfer offices worked until the last possible minute. A 24-year-old Syrian named Bayan explained that her mother had to wire her money from Aleppo a month ago because her husband was killed.
Don’t think for a second that ISIS abandoned the physical punishments that they like to dish out to anyone who acts out against them. After helping people escape their clutches, a senior Iraqi leader was killed by the militant group. The group’s religious police, also known as the “Hisba,” drove around the tent encampment inside Baghouz daily, encouraging the residents to pray five times a day. The Hisba also oversaw evacuations, calling for families and the wounded to register. Khodr, a driver for one of the convoys of trucks that waited in Baghouz to transport evacuees, got a first-hand experience of the militant group’s brutality last week. During the interview with the AP, Khodr described how two masked gunmen for ISIS stood at alert at each truck during the evacuation, while other men walked along the evacuees, checking names on a list. It wasn’t long before they were interrupted. One of the gunmen lashed out at a woman, attacking her with what looked like a taser. Khodr couldn’t understand what caused the attack – maybe the woman was confused and hesitated for just a moment, or maybe she argued with them. Panicked and crying, the woman fell onto the ground, and in an effort to ease her pain, she plunged her hands into the sand. When the woman wouldn’t get off of the ground, the gunman continued to fire his automatic weapon at the ground near her until she stood up and got onto the truck. “It was a terrifying scene. He hit the woman from a distance, maybe two meters away, pssht, just like that. She fell, and I started to cry,” described Khodr.
In an audio recording that was leaked from inside of Baghouz, an ISIS leader who describes himself as the person responsible for logistical planning explains how the evacuation was going to go. He emphasized that the evacuation, which was being organized on one side by ISIS and by SDF on the other, would protect their freedom of movement and their dignity, which was a sure sign that the group was going to continue reaching out to its supporters. The credibility of the recording could not be confirmed. Officials for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have denied making negotiations with ISIS, but Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said on Wednesday that it was confirmed that negotiations were happening so the SDF could attempt to get information about any hostages that were being held by ISIS.
The scenes from the evacuation are indescribable. Almost every day, traumatized men, women, and children hobble out of Baghouz. Some of them leaving with crutches or in a wheelchair, and many have left in an ambulance. Children and babies can be heard crying out for food. Women trying to protect their babies carried just a bag or two of everything that they owned. Many had lost their children or husbands. In hopes of using the currency one day, some people carried out bags of ISIS-created silver and copper coins. The evacuees had been on the move for quite some time in an effort to stay in the crumbling territory of ISIS, while being chased by the SDF from their home in Raqqa all the way down to Baghouz. Now that they were outside of Baghouz, the evacuees are being lined up to be screened by the SDF in a reception area in the middle of the desert. The men in the group were lined up separately to be screened by the SDF fighters.
A 27-year-old mother named Um Abdulrahman explained that she had tried being evacuated for four days before she was finally able to get a spot on a truck. Despite being badly injured by a mortar strike, causing her to lose half of her arm, the mother was also dealing with the heartbreak of her toddler being killed. Her husband, who was a mosque cleaner, had been too frightened to leave. As Um dried her tears, she said: “He was so scared they would kill him.” Eventually, the couple came out and her husband was submitted to questioning by the SDF. Um explained that she still supports the group, but she was hurt by the group’s corruption. “When we first got to the State, everything was orderly. There was no differentiation between Iraqi or Syrian or foreigner,” she said. But during the final year, Um said, ISIS was taken over by Iraqis who showed favor to their own and took all of the jobs. While lying on a gurney in a makeshift triage being treated by a U.S. aid group, she said: “I think this is the reason for the failure of the Islamic State … God protected us (from the international coalition.) But when there was corruption inside us, God stopped making us victorious.”
27-year-old Aliya from Aleppo said that her husband had taught in mosques for $100 a month, but as things got worse, the militant group wanted him to teach for free because “they had little to offer.” When her husband was killed last month, she wasn’t able to join the program that provided widows with stipends. She had to rely on food handouts and the help of her “sisters” to survive. “At the end, they only distributed dates to those nursing. I didn’t get any,” she said.
A woman of French-Moroccan descent was mourning because foreigners lost their privileged status due to Iraqi domination. Insisting that she left Baghouz because of the corruption, she said: “We became the rejects. We lived with bombings for four years.” In 2014, 27-year-old Rana, a mother of two, moved with her husband from Egypt to Syria shortly after the “caliphate” was declared. She described her life in Raqqa as “the best of times.” She was able to purchase gold for her daughters and the ISIS administration was abundant with resources. Once Raqqa fell, she retreated with her family to join the militants.
Rans was able to get out of Baghouz with her daughters, who are 5 and 8, with the last batch of evacuees that were able to leave before the SDF launched their assault on Friday. Sadly, her 27-year-old husband stayed behind and would more than likely be forced to fight. While waiting in the SDF screening line, she clutched the last pieces of gold they owned, a backpack filled with very few of their belongings, and a bag of dates that were given to her by the militants before she was evacuated. As she explained that she left Egypt and her family to follow her husband and her dream of the Islamic rule, she pointed to her bag and said: “This is all I have left.”