Shell-shocked and dishevelled, hundreds of women and children stumbled through eastern Syria’s windswept desert carrying what little they could after fleeing the Islamic State group’s final speck of territory.
Some of the very last survivors of the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate”, they arrived by the lorry-full to a collection point run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
After being searched, the women settled in clusters on the rough desert floor, their long black robes blanketed in dust and hemmed by filthy, malnourished children who tore into aid packages of water and bread.
They were some of the nearly 3,500 people, including 500 presumed jihadists, trucked out Tuesday from IS’s near-flattened final bastion, according to the SDF.
A woman from Deir Ezzor, dragging an over-stuffed bag and carrying an empty jug, called out for water before stooping to pick up a half-empty bottle off the ground and guzzle it down.
“We were besieged… we’ve been drinking dirty water.”
Nearby, hundreds of men who also chose to quit the redoubt stood wearily in line as troops from the US-led coalition backing the SDF processed them for detention.
Bandaged and bedraggled, more than several of them on crutches, the suspected fighters made for a telling image — the dying days of the jihadists’ once-sprawling proto-state.
At its peak more than four years ago, IS ruled over millions of people in a patch of territory the size of the United Kingdom.
But the jihadists have been rolled back to just a scrap of land tucked into a bend along the Euphrates River near Syria’s border with Iraq.
– ‘Disaster’ –
The SDF and the US-led coalition pounded the holdout jihadists over the weekend, after pausing their offensive for weeks to allow civilians in the bombed-out bastion a chance to leave.
But the Kurdish-led force was forced Sunday to again dial down its push over further fears for civilians still trapped inside the pocket.
“It was horrible. There was bombing, the snipers were firing,” said 55-year-old Umm Yunis, surrounded by a passel of children.
“We tried to dig ourselves in under the tent so that we weren’t hit by the bullets… we were by ourselves,” she said.
She and many of the other women pouring out of the holdout say they and their children were cordoned off from the fighters but were still hit by the massive bombardment.
“It was a disaster,” said another woman, also from Iraq, who refused to give her name.
“Cars were flipped and houses crushed. Children and women in the streets were burned black (by the bombing), honest to God.”
At the collection point, children wandered wide-eyed through a waste-land of rubbish left behind by previous groups of evacuees.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been trucked out in recent weeks from the jihadists’ ever-shrinking territory — in a seemingly never-ending flow of women and children from across the region and the world.
Those who filed out in the past few days said there were still thousands of civilians left, but that the remaining jihadists were prepared to go down fighting.
“It’s over,” said 13-year-old Mahmoud, from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, as he trudged towards another lorry ready to take him to a camp overflowing with evacuees.
“There’s no such thing as IS anymore.”