By Miles Vining
9 April 2019
“She soaked a big rag with bright red blood. We put a new one on and it soaked up a whole rag again within two minutes, bleeding a lot. Does that anti… Elliah, what do we do?….”. Our Chief Medic Elliah responds over the radio sets with, “Okay, is it a complete miscarry or not?”. “Stand by, it’s hard to tell but it looks like arterial bleeding to me,” Jason replied back. The two field medics were describing a pregnant woman who had just suffered a miscarriage. She was with what was left of her family at a temporary IDP (Internally Displaced Person) site behind Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) forward positions that faced the last remnants of the failed caliphate in the small Syrian town of Baghouz. Joining her before this day and afterwards would be over 29,000 IDPs who had fled from the fighting.
Some days they trickled in on foot across wide open spaces of No Man’s Land between the lines; other days they came in caravans of small trucks, pickups, sedans, even motorcycles. They came in mostly as Burkha-clad widows with their screaming, crying, and confused children. Many of their husbands had been killed while fighting for the so-called Islamic State; others vehemently claimed their husbands had no involvement with the group. One such wife even stated that, “I left my husband to die in that damned town!”. Another said, “Mine went into the desert,” while making a crawling motion with her hands. ISIS infiltrators were being killed within sight of SDF positions on many occasions. Sometimes you could hear the ordnance dropping all night from coalition aircraft, along with the illumination flares, mixed in with the Dushka and PKM machine gun fire.
To some of them this would be the first time they had slept outside in the freezing plains of southeastern Syria. As one young Canadian widowed put it, “We didn’t know how to make a fire so we just ordered takeout for every meal”. Indeed, these were not your covered-wagon, pioneering types but instead the urban middle-class that had been wooed by many a recruiter or suitor to find a way into Syria through Turkey or Iraq. So many widows that our team members interviewed had stories about being drawn to the caliphate during its early years, but still more of these stories had themes of trickery running through them. “He said that before we get married, we’d need to go meet his family in Raqqa”, or “I went to meet him in Turkey and he said we could get medicine for my children in Syria”. Again and again we would hear variations of the same tale, very badly wanting to ask if they had read a single news report about Syria before the trip. Even so, the Canadian lamented, “I mean, it was alright when the Caliphate was doing well,” and in the words of one Tunisian, “This is the land of Allah”.
They came from all corners of the world. Russians, Turks, Malaysians, Canadians, French, Germans, Azeris, Tajiks, Sudanese, Moldovans. The list would go on and on if we were able to conduct a complete census of them all. The flowing robes of the black abayas might have concealed the complexions of the mothers, but the children told a different tale. Different skin tones and hair styles spanned the breadth of humanity. Unfortunately, the youngest of these children had known nothing but the caliphate’s vicious education system, one that used IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) as symbolic counters to teach basic arithmetic. Yet we saw them, daily, in such horrible conditions that many of our team members would have to step aside for a second to squeeze out tears before going back to tending to a bloody gash from shrapnel or a fractured limb.
Casualties came from all over the spectrum as well. Some were from Inherent Resolve airstrikes or the artillery batteries that were pounding the caliphate lines on the outskirts of Baghouz. Some were from the caliphate’s gunfire as fleeing IDPs were trying to get away from the fighting, while others were even from SDF fire as militiamen in forward positions mistook vehicles packed with refugees for potential car bombs racing towards them in one final suicide attack. Indeed, at the beginning of February 2019, several SDF fighters were killed when fake “babies” that women were bringing in as IDPs exploded. On top of the wartime wounds were skin diseases, live births, miscarriages, kidney stones, and even old age conditions that all had to be attended to medically among the squalor of the temporary IDP site.
Men, however, were a different story. None of them were willing to admit it, but you could almost feel their hatred simmer in the chilly air. Much of it was directed towards us, the foreigner aid workers, but it was also towards the SDF fighters as well. Some of their responses to our greetings were short, showing minimal eye contact if it could not be avoided. Men would refuse outright medical care for injured women in their families, not wanting for a blood relative to be touched by our “Kaffir” medical staff.
Despite the horror and miserable conditions that the IDPs faced, the frightening realization for many on our team was that these people still had a formidable conviction in their failed caliphate. Indeed, towards the end, during the SDF-ISIS negotiations for terms of surrender, the families that were coming out of Baghouz were not “fleeing” or were “Internally Displaced” in the real sense of the word. These were widows and husbands that had clung on until the bitter end, only now being forced to leave through political negotiation. In the words of one such widow, “Al-Baghdadi and Dyala went off the track. I’m still on the track and ready to die. This is a test from God to see if I just came to Syria for adventure”.
Many want that black flag to fly again.
Miles Vining is a volunteer relief worker behind SDF lines in Baghouz.