Tens of thousands of dust-covered women, children and men have streamed out of the ragged tent encampment that is the last ISIS stronghold in the Syrian village of Baghouz since December – and despite that exodus they still keep on coming.
The coalition forces thought only a few families remained but its feared they may have severely underestimated the number left inside the enclave.
12,000 people from Baghouz arrived in one camp for non-combatants in northern Syria in the past 48 hours.
As the they came out of their bastion in eastern Syria, many are unrepentant and promise bloody vengeance against its enemies.
One woman speaking from behind a veil that covers her face told AFP: ‘We have left, but there will be new conquests in the future.
‘We will seek vengeance, there will be blood up to your knees.’
A still from a video released by the Free Burma Rangers showing people moving between tents in a makeshift camp in the last ISIS-controlled piece of territory in Syria’s Baghouz
It was reported that at an outpost for US-backed forces outside the village, 10 women stood in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky and shouted: ‘The Islamic State is here to stay!’
The gesture is used by IS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God.
US-backed fighters have been hoping for weeks that the final day has come for the ISIS ‘caliphate’, but its last tiny sliver of land just won’t seem to empty, flummoxing the Kurdish-led forces and bogging down their offensive to finish off the once sprawling proto-state.
‘When we began the operation we knew there would be civilians, but not in such a big number,’ Adnan Afrin, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said Thursday.
In recent days thousands more men and women – including those who once flocked to join IS from across the globe – left the IS pocket, upending assumptions that only a few families remained holed up in Baghouz and those who refused to leave or surrender were choosing to die there.
‘They’re coming from underground… they’re never-ending,’ said one SDF official.
ISIS forces fleeing the village of Baghouz in the eastern Deir Ezzor province have been cornered into a small piece of land between US-backed forces and a riverbank
Questions remain as to how aid planners, as well as SDF officials and their coalition partners, could have so severely underestimated the number of people left in the crumbling ‘caliphate’.
The International Rescue Committee on Friday said as many as 12,000 people from Baghouz have arrived in one camp for non-combatants in northeast Syria over the past 48 hours, including some 6,000 people on Thursday alone.
The women trucked out of the bastion this week gave drastically varying figures on the holdout families that remain in the bombed-out and besieged jihadist bastion.
‘There’s still more,’ said Umm Aboud from the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab.
‘You see how many people have come out in the past few days, there’s that many still inside,’ said the mother of four, her bright green eyes peering through a black veil.
A child sitting in a baby carriage surrounded by scattered blankets and other possessions near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria
The militants and their families were forced to set up camp amongst battered pickup trucks and tents on the last scrap of land of ISIS-controlled territory
Women hugging near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria, as US-backed forces sweep the dying ‘caliphate’ out of its Syrian-controlled territory
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have struggled to deal with thousands of people who have fled Baghouz
More than 55,000 civilians have arrived in the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp since December, according to the International Rescue Committee.
‘The IRC and other agencies are doing all they can do help the new arrivals but Al-Hol camp is now at breaking point,’ the organisation said Friday.
‘No one could have guessed that such a large number of women and children were still living in Baghouz.’
Carrying what they could manage, black-clad women trucked out of Baghouz in the past few days have said they were living crammed together in trenches, tents and cars near the bend in the Euphrates as the bombing campaign rolled the redoubt back.
‘There are thousands of families leaving… (but) there were thousands and thousands of families there, even I was surprised,’ 35-year-old Umm Alaa, from the Iraqi town of Heet, said Wednesday after fleeing.
The mother of 10 said she lost a child last week due to hunger as the situation grew increasingly desperate.
Footage obtained from the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian aid group run by a former US special forces operative, showed hundreds of people still remained in the riverside camp.
In the images said to have been taken Thursday, women draped in black walked through the makeshift dwellings as overturned cars and scraps of twisted metal littered the ground.
The aid group has come in close proximity to the camp in recent days and its head, David Eubank, said some two thousand people could remain inside.
Analyst Mutlu Civiroglu, on the ground in eastern Syria, said that IS was purposefully trying to conceal its numbers.
They have regularly been ‘releasing certain numbers of people, including fighters, in controlled amounts’ in an attempt to buy time, he said.
‘If they really wanted to surrender, they would have… and if they wanted to fight again, they could have,’ he added.
The delay was ‘a deliberate effort, maybe to prepare for something else… what that is though is unclear’.
ISIS created a proto-state across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, ruling millions of people, but has since lost all of it except a tiny patch in Baghouz by the Euphrates River.
Some of the last IS fighters and their families were cornered on Friday among a dense gathering of vehicles and tents on the water’s edge, caught between advancing US-backed forces and Syrian regime fighters across the river.
But General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, warned today that many of those being evacuated from the area are ‘unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised’.
He told Congress the fight against ISIS was ‘far from over’, and stressed the need to ‘maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation’.
Thousands of men, women and children have streamed out of the ISIS group’s embattled holdout of Baghouz in eastern Syria in recent days
Children sitting next to their injured mother with one resting his head on her as she lies on the ground surrounded by discarded possessions near the village of Baghouz
General Joseph Votel, who oversees US operations in the Middle East, said ISIS fighters had already dispersed across Iraq and Syria and remained radicalised.
He told the House Armed Services congressional committee: ‘Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment but the fight against Isis and violent extremism is far from over.
‘What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.
He added: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organisation that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology.
‘The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’
Defeated but unrepentant, some jihadists were seen limping out of their besieged final bastion in eastern Syria still praising ISIS and promising bloody vengeance against its enemies, reporters on the ground said.
The skeletal and dishevelled figures shuffling out of the smouldering ashes of the ‘caliphate’ may look like a procession of zombies, but their devotion seems intact.
At an outpost for US-backed forces outside the besieged village of Baghouz, ten women stood in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky in a gesture used by ISIS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God.
They shouted in unison: ‘The Islamic State is here to stay!’ Most refuse to disclose their names or nationalities.’
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walking in front of two trucks carrying refugees to a camp in the north of the country, near the village of Baghouz
Men sitting together in a queue waiting for aid, some injured and others living in makeshift camps near the village of Baghouz
Aid groups have said that children who have fled Baghouz are ‘victims of the conflict’ who must be protected
As the so-called caliphate crumbles, many Western countries have struggled to decide what to do with its citizens returning from the fighting.
In Britain, the authorities have been dragged into legal wrangling and soul-searching over the fate of jihadi bride, Shamima Begum, and her newborn son.
Despite begging to be allowed to return to Britain after fleeing to Syria from Bethnal Green, east London, aged 15 in 2015, she was stripped of her citizenship last month by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Donald Trump waded into the debate when he urged European countries to take back their suspected fighters and try them in their own countries, threatening via Twitter that US-backed forces in Syria would release the militants into Europe.
The Kurds also want foreign nations to repatriate their citizens and jail them in their lands, but are willing to make compromises if the international community will provide the funding and security for new prisons.
Last month Iraq announced a group of 13 French citizens accused of fighting for ISIS are to be tried in the country rather than face charges in their home country.
And the Kurdish government in Syria said if Britain and other European countries will not take back their jihadi citizens, then international tribunals, similar to the Nuremberg trials used to convict Nazi’s after the Second World War, could be set up to deal with the problem.
Members of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) help a woman near Baghouz with her food and belongings as one of the soldier’s Kalashnikov rifles rests against her bags
A Syrian fighter of the Turkish-backed Hamza Division mans a turret mounted in the back of a pickup truck flying a Turkish flag at a position in the village of Ulashli near the frontline in the northeast of Aleppo
A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) helps a woman near the village of Baghouz as thousands of men, women and children flee the fighting
A Syrian fighter of the Turkish-backed Hamza Division aims a Kalashnikov assault rifle from a position in the village of Ulashli near the frontline in the northeast of Aleppo
A boy looks out of a truck tarp near the village of Baghouz as he is transported in vehicles taking displaced families to refugee camps in Kurdish-controlled norther Syria
Civilians evacuated from the ISIS’s embattled holdout of Baghouz wait for bread and water at a screening area held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Deir Ezzor
A woman walking with crutches stands next to a child as people evacuated from the area of Baghouz
An injured woman and her four children evacuated from ISIS’s holdout of Baghouz sit at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
A queue of civilians being evacuated from the brutal fighting in the Baghouz area, where thousands of militants and their families have fled
More than 7000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the shrinking pocket over the past days, as US-backed forces press ahead with an offensive to crush holdout jihadist
Children believed to be from the Yazidi community, who were captured by ISIS fighters, pictured after being evacuated from ISIS’s last stronghold
A woman kisses the hand of a soldier at a reception area for people evacuated from the last shred of territory held by ISIS militants, outside Baghouz
Women and children evacuated from Baghouz which is currently the only active front in Syria’s eight-year civil war, that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions from their homes