By Ellen Francis
DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having joined Islamic State in Syria four years ago, the Algerian woman only abandoned the jihadists’ last scrap of besieged territory when her daughter was shot in the leg.
“I don’t regret it, even now … If my daughter was not injured, I would have stayed,” said the woman, speaking behind a full face veil as her 19-year-old daughter lay on a mattress nearby unable to walk.
At a checkpoint operated by U.S.-backed forces some 30 km (20 miles) from Islamic State’s last enclave at Baghouz, a village on the Euphrates, she described her faith in a movement that once held and terrorized large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
“Even if I’m here because I have no choice, I still believe, and I know this isn’t over,” added the woman, who finally joined the exodus from Baghouz on Monday evening.
The pro-Islamic State loyalties among evacuees showed the potential risk it still poses despite territorial defeat.
The militants once redrew the map of the region with a cross-border “caliphate” amounting to roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. But this has shrunk to Baghouz – a collection of hamlets and farmland – since they lost the bulk of their territory in 2017.
The group has been adapting for some time and has mounted a spate of guerrilla-style attacks in Syria of late.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, says it wants to be certain all civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to capture the area.
Numbers of evacuees have surpassed initial SDF estimates, and there was no sign of the evacuation ending on Tuesday when dozens of trucks ferried more out along dirt track roads.
People coming from Baghouz in recent days have shown more open loyalty to Islamic State than those who left earlier on, according to a volunteer medic at the checkpoint where they are subjected to preliminary security screening.
“Now they are more hardcore,” the medic said.
GUNSHOTS AND MORTARS
All the women at the checkpoint on Tuesday were dressed head-to-toe in black including the full face veil, or niqab.
A handful of tents on the desert ground were not enough to accommodate all gathered there. Warplanes with the U.S.-led coalition could be seen overhead.
Some children, their faces covered in dirt, cried.
The Algerian woman said there had there had been more gun-battles and mortar shelling than air strikes of late.
Her husband and two other children had been killed by shelling earlier in the war.
She had no desire to return to Algeria, where the government fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.
“I can’t return to people who do not like me and who I don’t like,” said the woman, who lived in France for a time.
Asked why she went to Syria, she said: “This is what I believe in … the laws of God.”
Islamic State used its ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam to justify atrocities including enslavement, mass killings, and draconian punishments including crucifixion.
The evacuees from Baghouz were being taken to a camp for internally displaced people at al-Hol, a town near the Iraqi border. The SDF wants foreign governments to help repatriate Islamic State activists, saying the burden and risk of holding them is growing.
Adnan Afrin, an SDF official, said the civilian convoys from Baghouz have included a growing number of surrendering militants. They are searched for bombs and mines before being allowed to go any further, he said.
The SDF estimates about 30,000 people have left Baghouz. It aims to eliminate or force the surrender of remaining fighters, who, according to the SDF, have dug defensive tunnels.
Many fighters remain, according to Afrin.
“We know from the civilians who came out that there are a big number, mostly European and Asian jihadists.”
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)