«Where are you all from?» my colleague asks a young boy named Chamil in Arabic, VOA news reports.
Minutes ago, he and several other boys arrived at this makeshift transit camp after escaping the battle for the Islamic State group’s last stronghold in Syria. Chamil looks about 11 years old and is surrounded by seven other boys, all a bit younger than him. «Indonesia,» he replies quietly.
He is among more than 1,000 people that came here this day on cargo trucks from a war about 30 kilometers away. Internationally backed Syrian forces are fighting IS for its last patch of land, which is not much more than a refugee camp along the Euphrates River near the village of Baghuz.In the past week alone, more than 6,500 people have been trucked out, far more than anyone expected.
But it is the militant group’s last stand, and the battle has dragged out for weeks. Here in the transit camp, we meet ardent IS supporters, confused foreign children and women unsure of where they stand.
Chamil answers a few questions in barely audible Arabic before sitting down and turning to his brother. In the distance behind him, a long row of men guarded by soldiers line up with their hands in the air. But Chamil’s father is not among them. He is still inside the fight in Baghuz. His mother died before they moved to Syria four years ago.
«My dad is here,» Chamil whispers, meaning he believes his father is still alive.
Strange last days
Throughout IS conflicts in the past two-and-a-half years, buses, trucks, military vehicles and packed cars have fled war zones, carrying out civilians. But commonly, in the final days of critical battles, it’s hard to say who is who. Everyone is believed to be somehow related to IS, but that doesn’t mean everyone is involved.At the transit camp here in Syria, soldiers order the men in line to kneel and then begin searching for weapons. We are told several men admit to being Islamic State fighters and vow their mission will continue. Others deny being involved.
A few women, draped head to toe in black veils, which are quickly growing brown from a gathering dust storm, also declare that the Islamic State will live on, despite their recent defeats.
«It is God’s will,» says Umm Anas. Her friend nearby tilts her head away from journalists' cameras and makes sure her eyes remain covered in black fabric, despite the wind.
«OK,» I say, «But do you believe in what they say, that people who are not Sunni Muslims should be killed?»
«Yes, this is religion,» she responds calmly.My colleague and I are taken aback. Until now, most people we’ve met fleeing IS territory in Syria or Iraq are deeply relieved to be away from the bombing, usually having survived a siege. We have seen countless women coming out of IS areas, ripping off their veils and cursing the group. Even «true believers,» with hopes of melting back into civilian society, are known to decry the militants.
But pro-IS declarations among people fleeing Baghuz have become common in recent weeks.
«Islamic State is not finished,» Umm Anas says to another journalist. «There will be victory.» Several soldiers move closer, appearing curious but not bothered. They know she will go to a camp, not to a jail.
'I am afraid'
Behind a collection of about 20 white tents, empty with the wind yanking their flaps off the ground, another woman sits on the ground next to two suitcases and a cardboard box.Three sleeping children surround her, hiding their heads from the sand. Another child, Ibrahim, 4, has his leg bandaged in dirty gauze and appears to be trying to make some kind of sandcastle.
His leg was injured by a bomb; shrapnel from the blast also immobilized the woman’s arm and killed her fifth child.
She says that after they were transported out of Baghuz last night, her husband was taken away with the other men for investigation. «He was a janitor in a mosque,» she explains. «He was poor and crippled. He had to swear allegiance [to IS] to get the job.»
The wind briefly flips open the black fabric covering her eyes. She looks young and sad. Her forefinger pokes through a tear in her black glove, and holes in her long black covering reveal a frayed rose-colored sweater underneath. She tells us her name but then asks us not to publish it. I ask why she is afraid to use her name.«I don’t know who I’m supposed to be afraid of, but I am afraid,» she says.
We ask her if IS told her these forces would be cruel to her, and that torture and rape were widespread. Militants have long told civilians under their rule this falsehood to frighten people out of trying to run away.
«Not that,» she says, slightly misunderstanding the question. «But when the trucks came to get us, the soldiers shouted at us, and ordered us to hurry and leave behind everything but our clothing. My husband told me to bring batteries, but the soldiers said I couldn’t.»
Refugee or enemy?
A moment later an investigative officer walks over to our secluded spot behind the tents, towering above the woman and her huddled children. «Where are you from?» he barks.
«Aleppo,» she says meekly.
«Why are you still here?» he asks loudly.«They left the wounded women here,» she says, trailing off. She doesn’t know why she is still sitting in the sandstorm waiting to be told where to go. The officer is satisfied and strides off. The woman folds a bit on herself and trembles, weeping just loud enough to hear.
She says she realizes the soldier was gruff, but not cruel. Still, she is terrified. Here outside of IS territory in Syria, she doesn’t know how she will be received. Is she a refugee or an enemy?