Baghouz (Syria) “Strike, strike, strike,” yells the Kurdish fighter, lying on the roof of a house turned front-line post, finger on the trigger of a machine gun. The roar of American dive-bombers is bloodcurdling and, a moment later, the terrifying blast of a 250 kg (550-pound) bomb reverberates in your ears. An overpowering pillar of black smoke rapidly rises into the sky between the low houses and palm trees of the last Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria. The final push by Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz Tahtani took place on Saturday at 6pm, with heavy covering fire from artillery belonging to the US and French anti-ISIS coalition. Diehard followers of the Caliphate are besieged in a small open-field village, covering an area no greater than six square kilometres (less than 4 square miles) the size of a neighbourhood in Rome. A year and a half since the fall of Raqqa, the historic ‘capital’ of ISIS in Syria, the last piece of land held by fundamentalists is now falling to the advancing Kurds.
From the hill overlooking the redoubt of black flags, fighters shoot from a high-calibre machine gun mounted on the back of an off-road vehicle. Less than a kilometre away, relentless air support along with invisible, silent drones is also tearing apart the last remaining hiding places of the jihadist militia. A 500 kg (1,100-pound) bomb explodes in the middle of the village, creating a large mushroom cloud of black smoke.
“There are still 500 terrorists, possibly more, almost all of them are European, Chechen, Saudi, Afghan and Turkish fighters with nothing to lose. They are using as many as 2,000 civilians, as human shields,” Adel Judi, commander of the Qamishli brigade, explains to Il Giornale. Sporting a thick black beard, battle-style camouflage, a pistol hanging off his waist and the latest American machine gun, he leads his men along the front, two hundred metres away from the black flags.
Abdallah, who lost both legs from land mines, managed to escape the pocket and reach the first Kurdish checkpoint. In Baghouz Tahtani a little grocery store was frequented by international volunteers from the holy war. “There are so many Europeans and I have also seen some Italians, who came from your country to fight,” the owner claims, without providing any concrete evidence. “These are all people who will not surrender.”
The village is devastated by weeks of fighting: houses are gutted, heaps of rubble strewn for miles along with crumpled cars. The landscape is lunar. In some places the lines are so close that women from the Caliphate’s mujahideen, veiled from head to foot, can be clearly seen looking for something to eat to survive the siege. Every now and then ISIS followers, a favourite target for drones, ride along on motorcycles. During the night, between Saturday and Sunday, the sky above the hamlet of Baghouz Tahtani is lit up by tracers and red flames from air strikes and heavy weapons. There is an infernal racket: mortar bombs go off with a dull thud and pass through the air, sizzling above our heads to target the positions of the last remaining jihadists. They put up strong resistance on the first day of the attack but ultimately have to begin retreating.
It will not be easy to wipe them out, but the countdown has now begun to quash the last remaining pocket of black flags.
The wives of the Caliphate flee on foot, children in their arms, through long stretches of the 8km humanitarian corridor opened up by the Kurds. It is easy to make out the black specks of women, dressed in the full veil imposed by the Caliphate, over the plains in front of the hamlet intersected by dirt tracks. One false move could see you blown up by a mine. “To save ourselves, we rely on traffickers, promising to take us to Turkey for $2,000 per person. But in reality they are handing us over to the Kurds,” recount the wives of ISIS thrown into a hole in the ground to shelter from the cold.
Fatima Bakat, a 23-year-old Syrian woman born in Aleppo is one of the few who lashes out at the Islamic state. Only her eyes can be seen through the full veil. “We civilians all want to flee but are afraid of the mujahideen. They terrify us by saying that if we escape, the kuffar (infidels) will rape us,” the girl with a child in her arms says. “If they discover someone on the run they will kill him on the spot.”
Many of those displaced are widows. Their husbands lost their lives fighting for the Caliphate. Um Abdullah is not the real name of the leader of a small group of Kazakh women, who tells the interpreter to “not smoke. It is haram (a sin) according to the Koran.” Life in the Islamic State “was normal before the bombs.” She orders the Syrian woman who dared speak to us not call “the Kurds ‘brothers’ because they are infidels.”
After a few days out in the outdoors, the wives of ISIS are transferred to two guarded camps where about two thousand foreign brides of the mujahideen are living, together with their children, including two Italians who came Syria from the Veneto. The masked agents of the CIA and the FBI, who identify them one by one, are mainly interested in the Westerners. A few days ago, two Canadians arrived and a German married to a big shot in the Caliphate intelligence.
Few of those fleeing are men and are sometimes wounded. With Salafi-style beards and a murderous look in their eyes, they were fighting for ISIS up until the other day, but naturally swear they have never held a weapon.