Her face covered by a black veil, with just a slit for her eyes, Dura looks like dozens of other black-clad women clustered on blankets with their children, all former subjects of ISIS’s crumbling caliphate in Syria.
But this woman is a long, long way from home.
When I address her in Arabic, she replies in English with a distinctly North American accent. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Arabic very well,” she says.
On this nondescript patch of ground on the vast plains of eastern Syria, hundreds of people from all around the world are being identified, questioned, sometimes detained. More arrive every day, as they flee ISIS’s last enclave, the besieged town of Baghouz Al-Fawqani.
I spoke to people from Canada, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Syria, as coalition warplanes roared overhead looking for targets. With the exception of Dura and a fellow Canadian woman, nearly everyone denied any connection with ISIS. Each had ended up in this desolate corner of Syria by sheer chance, they said.
The college student from Toronto
Dura Ahmed, 28, is originally from Toronto, Canada. She arrived here like the others on the back of a pickup truck driven by fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
I switch into English. “How did you end up in Syria?”
“My husband came here first in 2012,” she says. “He tried to convince me for two years to come, but I said no, no, I don’t want to. Then finally he said you have to come, but I was studying.”
I ask her what she was studying.
“English and Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t know anything about ISIS or anything. He said just come and see. Come and see.”
“You were studying the Middle East and didn’t know anything about ISIS?” I asked, puzzled.
“I didn’t really watch the news. No one liked to talk about it. I was really oblivious to what was going on. In the end I said fine, if I don’t like it, I’ll come back,” she said.
So to Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital, she came in 2014. What she saw, she liked. “It was an easy life. It was a city. It was stable,” she said. “You’re there and you’re eating Pringles and Twix bars. You’re just there. You don’t feel like you’re in a war.”
“But hadn’t you heard all the stories of people having their heads cut off, of mass executions?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, and then adds, as if talking about the weather: “Briefly, just briefly, I heard about some executions taking place.”
“Did you hear about the slaughter of Yezidis, of Yezidi women being enslaved?” I asked.
“When I came here, I heard. I haven’t seen one, but…” Her answer trailed off with a nervous laugh. “Well, having slaves is part of Sharia,” she finally ventured. “I believe in Sharia, wherever Sharia is. We must follow whoever is implementing the way, the law.”
Did she regret coming to Syria, I asked, wondering if she felt disillusioned with the Islamic State, after years of being forced back by a US-led coalition, moving from place to place, and ultimately ending up in a “caliphate” of just 1.5 square miles under frequent airstrike.
“No. I had my kids here,” she replied. Her two young boys, Mohammed and Mahmoud, were at her feet. Their faces and clothing were caked with dust, their noses running. The younger one, Mahmoud, had no shoes.
The graphic designer from Alberta
Sharing Dura’s blanket, apart from the other women, was a 34-year-old graphic designer from Alberta. She declined to tell us her name, but described her life in Syria in detail.
She, too, came to Syria at her husband’s bidding.
“He’s like, ‘it’s obligatory for you to come here. You have no choice, and as your husband I’m telling you to come here.’ And as a Muslim wife you have to obey, even though it was really hard for me to do it.” She takes a deep sigh. “I had to.”
Like Dura, she claims she knew nothing about ISIS or Syria before she made the journey here.
“I’m not the kind of person who watched the news,” she said. “I didn’t follow any of this kind of stuff. I used to be a graphic designer and I used to work from home and just take care of the kids. I was never interested in what was going on in the world.”
Her first husband was Bosnian, and left Canada to join ISIS “as a cook, not a fighter,” she says – a common description from ISIS wives. Cook or not, he was eventually killed in the fighting, she says.
For two years she was single, and then re-married, this time a fellow Canadian. He, too, was killed in the fighting. She is pregnant.
Through both marriages, she lived a cloistered life in Raqqa, attending to her two sons. She didn’t send her children to school, she says. “It was too dangerous and there were too many bombings. They don’t speak Arabic. So I taught them myself,” she replied.
When I tried the most basic of Arabic out on her son, Yusif, he stared at me blankly.
The middle-aged man visiting ‘a dear friend’
Every adult who arrives is questioned by intelligence officers with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force. All adult males, and foreign women, are also questioned by American, British and French personnel who have parked their armored vehicles on a low bluff overlooking the assembled civilians. Our SDF escorts made it clear we were not to approach or take images of the American staff and their colleagues.
The US military had questioned Fattah Al-Khatib, a man in his 50s with a thick white beard, originally from Idlib Province in Western Syria. Fattah told me he made the journey east to visit a “dear friend.” When fighting broke out, he and his family were forced to follow the retreating ISIS fighters.
“Do you or any or your family have any connections with ISIS?” I asked him.
“No,” he answered, adding “that’s exactly what the American intelligence people asked me. No, I don’t.”
I asked him about the situation inside Baghouz Al-Fawqani, where food and supplies are known to be running low, and people are living in tents. “It’s normal,” he said. “People have set up stalls and are selling and bartering food and other goods. There are people from all over the world. There are many people from Chechnya.”
“It’s strange,” I said, “that you find a Chechen in Baghouz Al-Fawqani, isn’t it?” I ask. Baghouz Al-Fawqani, even in the best of times, has never been on the tourist circuit, and SDF commanders say there are many Chechens among the 500 ISIS fighters holed up in the town.
“I don’t know if it’s suspicious or not,” he replied, shrugging off my question with complete nonchalance.
The last survivors of an airstrike
Abdul Rahman, a young man in his 20s, and his extended family were on the receiving end of an airstrike in the town. When I met him, he was sitting upright with a blanket on his lap. His face, hands and arms were severely blistered. A bandage wound round his head above bloodshot eyes. Next to him sat his kid sister, with burns on her face as well.
Abdul Rahman’s house in Baghouz Al-Fawqani took a direct hit at about three in the morning, a few days ago. Asked if anyone died, he responded quickly: “My mother, my brother, his wife, his son, my sister, my wife, my daughter, my uncle, his wife and their two children,” he says.
His father, Salam, 45, listened. He has a bandage on his left hand and his face is severely scarred. Another bandage winds around his neck and over his chin; he says his jaw was broken in the airstrike.
“I’m afraid,” he told me, his voice shaking. “Do you understand? I’m afraid. All I have left is my daughter and my son.” He covered his face and broke down in tears.
By mid-afternoon, two white buses arrived. Women and children climbed onboard for a five-hour drive north, to an already overcrowded camp for the displaced near the town of Al-Houl. Men believed to be ISIS members are sent to a separate camp for further questioning. This includes more than 800 foreign fighters.
But for the crying of babies, the passengers are subdued. Willing or otherwise, these former subjects of the once-feared Islamic State have lost everything. Their so-called caliphate has been reduced to a tiny dot on the map, soon to be erased all together.
While they lived under ISIS rule, state preachers and propagandists doubtless argued that the terror group would resurge to defeat its enemies against all odds. Some might still believe it.
But on the bus, it seemed, reality had sunk in. The caliphate is on the brink of death. This is the end.