Working in Syria left us with no doubts about the extent of the evil that we were facing when it comes to describing the faltering caliphate in Baghouz. We listened to the stories, treated the victims, and interviewed women who had been married to Islamic State (IS) fighters at the age of 12. But some of the more tangible fragments that we encountered were the physical objects left amid the debris that scattered every IDP site, including the walking routes that the widows and children hobbled down to get to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forward positions.
Throughout the mission that took place outside of Baghouz, there was a definite timeline that every team member felt in terms of the kinds of IDPs we were working with. In the beginning those fleeing were actual IDPs, running from the violence in the city, and many simply wanted to get away as fast as possible. Most definitely came for the caliphate in its early stages but probably lost faith in it as time went on, finding themselves in Baghouz as the group retreated south from Raqqa. Others were simply caught up in the mixture, not necessarily a part of any extremist group, just local Syrians that were trying to survive another phase of the civil war.
But this changed the longer the fight dragged on. The widows became more hardcore and extremist as the fighting intensified in the city. The young men changed from possibly being affiliated with the caliphate to being captured fighters on their way to camps. A turning point was when the SDF and remaining IS fighters made negotiations for a ceasefire in order to evacuate a large number of the civilians remaining in the tent city that had formed outside of Baghouz. The demeanor of the refugees became colder, harsher, and some refused treatment or help. The foreigners in particular were less interested in being interviewed or questioned about their experiences or motivations. What they left behind told stories too.
IS uniforms were probably one of the more haunting things that we would find amongst the IDP debris, sometimes tucked under more discarded clothes. Different shades of tan and “Flat Dark Earth” colored utility tunics with velcro shoulder and cargo pockets were common. Much of the material itself was Ripstop fabric, a very common component of modern military field uniforms. Along with the uniforms were assault packs complete with waterproof sections, waist straps, and individual names stenciled on them. It was eerily indicative of a level of organisation, understanding, and attention to detail that only a dedicated group of designers, suppliers, financiers, and advisers would be able to achieve.
Matching our extremist timeline, we initially only found the uniforms discarded along the walking route that the families walked in on, as if they knew it was a very smart idea to distance themselves from anything caliphate related. But soon the families grew bolder, and we found their caliphate paraphernalia at the rearward IDP collection sites, many kilometers behind SDF fighting positions. On several occasions we found Indonesian children, some orphaned because their parents were killed in the fighting, wearing a complete set of child sized variants. They said they had only come to “Dow-Lah” to study the Quran.
Photographs told stories as well. Sometimes we found entire intact albums consisting of family portraits, babies, and young IS fighters posing for the camera or drinking tea. Too often when working with crowds of burqa-clad women, it was so hard to find things in common. But through the photographs, entire families came alive, often happy and smiling in the comfort of their homes. Not only were Syrian families present but also those who had traveled to the caliphate from Egypt or Iraq. Some of these were from the pre-caliphate days and we’d wonder how many of the family members were even still alive. We’d also find entire photo albums ripped to pieces along the walking routes, usually ten to twenty meters off the track in some wadi or depression. You could tell that someone didn’t want the SDF or anyone else to find them as they methodically ripped each photograph into several pieces and discarded it in the desert before approaching the SDF positions.
Notebooks were equally as revealing with the personable scrawl of the previous owners who wrote in them or scribbled down information. One notebook was a lined children’s elementary notepad with an image of a baby on the front and the back. Normal in most any setting with the exception that the babies eyes and mouth had been scratched out with a pen on both covers. Inside the first page was the caliphate flag drawn in pen, along with a proclamation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph and leader. Another notebook had a drawing of an IS “technical” pickup truck with a heavy machine gun mounted in the bed, a type used extensively by many sides throughout the conflict. The frame of the truck said “Toyota”, unsurprising considering how common Toyota trucks were in the region. But certainly the single most chilling written piece we found was among several pages in a lined notebook. The pages were lists of names, without any context for what the names signified. Divided between them were a list of men, then a list of women, then mentioning a group total here and another group total over there. But at the bottom of one was scrawled in Arabic, the words “One Slave”.