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Fight or flight: Extremists divided in Daesh Syria holdout

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria — Some want to fight till the end and others want to flee: A split is emerging among extremists as starvation grips their imploding “caliphate” in eastern Syria.

Thousands of men, women and children, including hundreds of militants, are believed to be trapped in the Daesh group’s last patch of territory in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

The hundreds evacuated from the riverside hamlet on Tuesday are gathered at a screening point run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces 20 kilometres  north of the village. 

Ahmad Al Joura, a 32-year-old man from central Homs province is among the small handful of men that are allowed to speak to journalists at the outpost. 

He claims he never fought with militants but says that they “were living among us”, in a makeshift camp in Baghouz smaller than half-a-square-kilometre.

“The [remaining] territory is so small that they are forced to live with us,” he says, his face covered with a scarf. 

He says conditions inside the redoubt are dire: food and drinking water are scarce.

Holed up in a death trap of disease and starvation, the remaining extremists are now torn between fighting, fleeing and surrendering to US-backed forces.

“Some want to fight, some don’t want to fight, and some want to escape,” Joura says.

“But they don’t have what it takes to put up a fight because there is no food,” he says. “Weapons need strength to be carried.” 

‘Guns, bombs and explosive belts’

Staggered rows of rudimentary tarpaulin tents and a small cluster of buildings are all that remain of Daesh’s once-sprawling caliphate declared in 2014 across large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq. 

Holdout extremists roam the settlement arms in hand.

“The fighters are everywhere,” says Nour Ghroush, a 20-year-old Syrian woman from the northeastern province of Hasakeh.

“They walk in the streets with their guns, bombs and explosive belts,” she says.

A large number of Syrians and Iraqis remain in the Baghouz pocket, but also a significant number of foreigners, says the Syrian woman.

“Some were not affected by the siege, while others have died because of it,” she says.

“Some [Daesh] supporters and foreigners” have a steady supply of money and resources and “they can buy whatever they want”, she says.

Syrians, however, “have nothing”, she claims.

Her sister-in-law sits nearby.

Aisha Abdulazim, leaves her daughter to wail as she speaks with intent.

“There are so many families still inside that we had to use blankets as tents,” she says.

“We lack a lot of necessities,” says the women in her thirties. “Only those who have money can buy them, but as for us, one day we eat and one day we don’t.” 

‘We were convinced’

Around 50,000 people — mostly women and children — have streamed out of the area since early December, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The SDF have carried out four rounds of evacuations since last week, trucking thousands of women, men and children out of the ever-shrinking Daesh enclave.

The Kurdish-led force says it wants to pluck all remaining civilians out before launching a final military push. 

The SDF evacuated around 30 truckloads of people from Baghouz on Tuesday. 

A few days earlier, the Hisbah (Islamic police) told those trapped inside that they could leave if they wanted to, especially families and the wounded, women who quit the redoubt tell AFP. 

According to previous accounts from evacuees, the Daesh leadership has called on women and children to flee the “caliphate”.

Ismahan, an Iraqi woman, says the decision to leave was not an easy one.

“Yes, there was hunger inside, but we were convinced with what we were doing,” the mother of three tells AFP.

Israa, a 37-year-old Iraqi woman from Baghdad says she was also reluctant to leave.

When asked why she left, she says she did so when extremists called on those inside to head to a nearby hilltop, from which the SDF had opened a humanitarian corridor. 

Pointing to her nephew, she says: “There was no milk and he is very ill because of hunger.”

“The doctor prescribed him cow milk, but there are no cows” in Baghouz.

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