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A desperate struggle for survival inside the last corner of the Islamic State

Veiled women, reportedly wives of Islamic State members, walk under the supervision of a female fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces at the al-Hol displacement camp in Syria on Feb. 17. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

AL-HOL, SYRIA — At the end, the Islamic State is little more than a hamlet of tents, pitched in panic between U.S. bombing raids.

Inside, there has been chaos, witnesses say. Families have fled. Militants are hoarding food. Some fighters have turned their guns on each other.

As U.S.-backed forces surround the last square mile of Islamic State territory, preparing for a final assault on the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, people who have escaped describe a desperate scrabble for survival in the dying days of the statelet.

In more than a dozen interviews at screening points outside the village and at the al-Hol displacement camp, those who fled recounted the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate in graphic, often harrowing, detail. Wives and children of the Islamic State fighters looked confused and exhausted. Yazidi women and their families, who had been enslaved by the militants, were in shock.

One said she had walked “out of hell.”

They described how they had retreated in recent weeks from city to town and then into rural villages as the bombs kept falling and their Islamic State shrank. By the time they reached the villages of Sousa and then Shaafa, near Baghouz close to the Iraqi border, they had given up unpacking their suitcases, several women said.

“We were just moving again and again,” said a woman from the Syrian city of Aleppo, who gave her name as Om Mohamed.

Basic supplies in Islamic State territory have dried up. Prices have soared and civilians have subsisted on what food they have left, adding weeds as bulk to other ingredients when available and boiling the weeds by themselves when that was all they had.

Airstrikes have made the earth shake, with the U.S. military reporting 179 airstrikes in Syria targeting the militants in the two-week period that ended Feb. 9. Gunshots cracked dawn to dusk, residents said. People became too scared to collect the wounded, and so many died out in the open. Their bodies lay there for days.

“The commanders were getting more withdrawn and telling us to stay where we were and keep shooting,” said Sadah, a 15-year-old Yazidi boy kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 and later pressed into staffing an outpost to defend Baghouz. “Some of them were panicking. You could hear them saying that it was over. But other men were shouting across them, they were saying: ‘This is forever, forever.’ ”

At its height, the Islamic State’s caliphate covered an area the size of Britain, straddling the Syria-Iraq border, and its propaganda sold a dream of Islamic paradise.

Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his state from the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, while his army of militants rampaged on, slaughtering and enslaving thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority in what the United Nations has described as a genocide. Inside the caliphate, jihadists ran hospitals and cleaned the streets. There were floggings and crucifixions in its public squares. 

By last week, there was only one dusty path out of the Islamic State, and hundreds of fighters and civilians had trudged along it, toward the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the U.S. military, and then were sent hundreds of miles to refugee camps or prisons.

President Trump said on Feb. 15 there were "great announcements" coming on the battle to defeat the Islamic State caliphate in Syria. (Video: AP)

Both President Trump and SDF officers have said a victory is imminent over the Islamic State and the several hundred fighters still believed to be in Baghouz.

The militant group’s most die-hard fighters have seen escape as a betrayal. But as the final battle loomed, others chose survival, laying down their guns and skulking out among fleeing civilians, or using middlemen to negotiate surrender.

Food supplies disappeared for families without connections. At an SDF screening point last week, several infants showed signs of malnutrition.

A Trinidadian woman who had traveled to Syria with her husband in 2014 said a friend had become so hungry that she entered an abandoned house looking for food. The militants had mined the area in an attempt to stop civilians leaving, and she stepped on an explosive as she entered the home. She bled to death on the grass.

But the fighters still had food. “They were taking it; they were hoarding it,” said Om Mohamed. “It was corruption. They didn’t care about the civilians. They just wanted to keep their battle going.”

A group of suspected militants who turned themselves over to the SDF looked in good health compared with other inhabitants who had left Baghouz.

Islamic State fighters were seen in Baghouz, Syria, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in early February. (Video: Associated Press)

As the Islamic State’s domain dwindled to Baghouz, the remaining houses and apartments in the village filled up with dozens to a room or were taken over by fighters as defensive positions. And when the Islamic State decided that the apartments were full, it was time for tents. 

Ibtissam Taha, a 16-year-old from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, said she and her brothers had raised theirs under cover of darkness, after the militants directed families to do so. “They said there was no space left in the houses,” she said. Taha said her family spent four nights in the tents with bombs striking close by. “They were just falling, falling. It was relentless,” she said. 

The SDF has accused Islamic State fighters of using civilians as human shields in a last-ditch attempt to slow the offensive. 

On the front lines, the fighters started to panic. Two Yazidis and a Syrian woman said they had witnessed open fighting between the jihadists in the final week. On one occasion, a Tunisian fighter pulled his gun on a Syrian fighter and shot him at close range. On another, a fight erupted between Iraqi fighters, with several yelling that their commander was bad at his job.

As the end approached, refugees from Baghouz and SDF fighters said, the caliphate’s smugglers were making vast sums. Rumors swirled that several thousand dollars would get a man to Iraq or into Syrian government territory. Families paid hundreds per person to get safe passage from the snipers and out along the path to surrender.

Those without the funds waited, instead, for a pause in bombing.

“And then finally, we left,” said Lina Mohamed Mahmoud, a 17-year-old from the Islamic State’s onetime capital of Raqqa, Syria. The journey lasted hours into the night, but they walked and they walked, sighting the SDF reception point as the sun rose.

As she was interviewed in the al-Hol displacement camp, three days after leaving the tatters of the Islamic State’s caliphate, the teenager tended to her four children under the age of 5 — all coughing or crying. 

“I don’t know what to do now,” she said. “They told us the caliphate was ending as a territory, but they told us as well that it would live on in a way. Now, we’re all just waiting.”

Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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