The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) struggled to cope with the flow of people exiting the very last shred of a once-sprawling proto-state that claimed dominion over millions of people.
Several thousand of them are believed to remain in a last redoubt which has been shrunk to about half a square kilometre on the edge of Baghouz, a hamlet by the Euphrates river.
SDF forces and medics were treating the last batch of more than 2,000 people who were trucked in from the front line to a desert screening point at night.
An AFP reporter saw an 11-year-old girl who had lost her leg, a small child with a broken hand and his pregnant mother as well as others who had suffered wounds from landmine explosions and bombardment.
Kurdish fighters there said 30 people, mostly women, had already been sent on to other facilities for treatment, and that a total of 300 had received emergency care.
Their accounts of the makeshift camp in Baghouz where the SDF says around 5,000 people remain describe a death trap of disease and starvation.
– ‘Nothing but hunger’ –
Many of the women told AFP they were not able to leave earlier for lack of funds to pay the smugglers who spirit groups out of the besieged area.
“Inside, there is nothing but hunger,” said one of them.
Next to her, two famished, dust-caked children were spooning out jam from a pot with their grimy fingers.
Nearby in the chaotic SDF outpost, a woman from Kazakhstan was walking around asking people if they knew whether meals would be handed out soon.
The number of people trapped in the last IS pocket near the Iraqi border has exceeded all estimates from a month ago, when SDF forces looked poised to complete their takeover.
The SDF, which has spearheaded the fight against IS in Syria since 2015, has complained that the burden was too heavy and urged the world to scale up its humanitarian effort.
Many of the civilians and fighters emerging from the ruins of the IS “caliphate” are foreigners whose countries of origin are reluctant to repatriate.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, around 50,000 people have quit the last IS pocket in the Euphrates Valley since December 2018.
Among them are up to 5,000 suspected IS members, while most of the rest are their relatives.
After being vetted, women, children and men not suspected of belonging to the extremist group are transported north to the Kurdish-run camp of Al-Hol, while suspected jihadists are sent to SDF-held detention centres.
More evacuations are likely in the coming days but SDF forces, with backing from the US-led coalition and its aerial might, are then expected to move in and flush out any diehard IS fighters.
– Secret transfers? –
Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said Monday that the SDF would announce the end of the IS proto-state “in the next few days”.
“But this does not mean that we have eliminated terrorism, which must be eradicated at the roots,” he said.
Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells across several countries.
In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.
The Observatory on Monday said 1,400 people, mainly IS relatives, were secretly transported from orchards on the outskirts of Baghouz to neighbouring Iraq during the past 24 hours.
Kurdish officials did not confirm the transfer, but denied the SDF was responsible.
“In principle, we do not hand over any person passing through our territories to Iraqi authorities or any other party,” Omar said.
Such transfers can only happen if they were trucked from Baghouz “by another party”, he explained, without specifying.
Baghdad on Sunday said the SDF has transferred 280 Iraqi nationals accused of fighting alongside IS to Iraqi authorities.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh said Monday his country’s courts would prosecute 13 suspected French jihadists, who were turned over to Iraq after being captured by the SDF.
“This deal suits Iraq, but it’s also politically favourable for France, which will avoid having to deal with the difficult return issue. Baghdad will have done it a favour,” said Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashemi.