by Miles Vining
7 June 2019
Our relief group provided humanitarian assistance to people fleeing the last stronghold of ISIS in Baghouz, Syria. In Feburary and March 2019 we fed over 25,000 and treated over 4,000 wounded. These were mostly ISIS families, a number of which were in critical condition from the fighting and air strikes in the city. Our positions were from the frontline on the bluffs above the Euphrates River east of the city back to the IDP collection points in the desert. While at these forward positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there were numerous SDF casualties incurred from ISIS positions in the valley.
A month after ISIS was defeated, we entered the city of Baghouz. Our first venture was down the bluffs where we had previously taken cover. Underneath them we found the dugouts and cut-outs that numerous fighters had occupied during the battle. Evidence of airstrikes against them was clearly visible with the busted Kalashnikov rifles and twisted hulks in the craters that spanned the walking path next to the Euphrates. Civilians flooded through this path as did ISIS fighters. We found improvised ISIS claymores (complete with cloth carrying handles), and satchel charges held together by transparent tape strewn haphazardly on the ground, as if their former owners decided to ditch them in a hurry. Pointed out by some SDF fighters were the skeletal remains of a dead fighter, his now sun-bleached spine poking through the collar of his camouflage caliphate-issued fatigues. His skull was several feet from him, between the severed body lay the “black standard”, a nylon square of a flag with the caliphate’s slogans stencil-painted on it.
After our walk, we drove to the centre of the town of Baghouz, now completely empty of any life apart from the SDF forces that were stationed in it. During the battle, the area was filled with vehicles of all conceivable types, multiplying the size of the tiny hamlet of Baghouz by at least a factor of ten. Baghouz was a tiny town that become surrounded by a huge tent city during the battle. But in reality, we were only seeing a tiny city centre that had what was essentially a Syrian version of an enormous trailer park that developed around it. Everything and everyone that could be loaded onto a moving vehicle and driven from Raqqa to this little obscure corner of Syria was there, forming the likes of a tent and vehicle city that easily rivalled most music festival campouts in the United States and Europe.
Although we could not walk through the largest of the tent cities due to ongoing clearing operations, we were able to visit that small centre of Baghouz itself. Many of the bodies had been buried, but you could still smell them. And if you happened to have a stuffy nose, the swarms of flies left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the amount of death and destruction that had occurred here. As we carefully picked our way through buildings and grass spaces once crawling with the remnants of the so-called Islamic state, we did not get the impression of a sort of deathly zombie land or ghost town. If anything, it seemed more like a town that might have had a hurricane come through and everyone simply left in a hurry, waiting somewhere else to come back and restart. There was not a feeling of sinister evil that one might have expected to be omnipresent in the very air molecules.
Then came the suicide belts and vests. We found them in refrigerators, tucked between bushes, strewn across dirt dugouts where families had lived. Poking out from beneath discarded clothes in the empty houses, there was even one sitting in the corner of a rooftop where we paused to eat lunch. One rough estimate we had was that we came across some component of a suicide vest every twenty meters or so. One surprise discovery was an IED manufacturing tent in an open field, components and raw materials still waiting to be stuffed into vests or satchel charges. As if the operator had suddenly realised a late-night soccer game was already twenty minutes into the broadcast and he needed to catch the play, never to return. Upon geospatial analysis of the coordinates of the site, we found out that the tent had been erected in late January. Another discovery was that of a clinic tent complete with sheet metal shelving units still stacked with unopened medicine boxes and vials. This location had apparently caught fire as evidenced by the charred remains of equipment and the burnt down canvas covering. Eerily and straight out of a horror movie was a medical reclining chair, bent upwards at an angle among the black ash of what was left of the tent.
We found so much ordinance among the various sites that at times it was comical. RPG warheads had been shattered to pieces and were laying in puddles as if a part of some olive drab toy kit that had bounced out of a toddler’s hands. Spent shell casings lay strewn among numerous houses, while more PG7 warheads were even completely intact. The SDF had been collecting discarded ordnance since the battle’s conclusion, with piles and piles of captured materiel in the courtyard of one of the houses, but there was still so much more to be picked up. There are many metrics for determining the evil that ISIS became during its reign of terror. Numbers of civilians killed or enslaved, prisoners tortured or beheaded. One of our post-caliphate metrics in Baghouz was stumbling upon suicide belts. Just like how fleeing passengers on a ship are handed life preservers, so did the last of the caliphate’s residents got handed suicide belts. But unfortunately to many in the West, the so-called Islamic State is already becoming a fading memory of a terrorist organization that tried and ultimately failed in its attempt at Islamic utopia. Hopefully what we found on the ground in Baghouz can be a reminder to those that this monster of a creation was tangible evidence of the evil that can still manifest itself among us today.
Miles Vining is a volunteer relief worker behind SDF lines in Baghouz.