AL-HOL CAMP, Syria — The mother sobbed uncontrollably as she carried her newborn child to the manager of the muddy and windswept camp in northeast Syria. The young Syrian woman tried desperately to explain that the child was just 11 days old and had become suddenly unwell.
“This is no place to bring life into the world,” she said, holding the tiny swaddled infant up to a gas fire. The boy had turned pale, she said, and was struggling to breathe.
She had to wait awhile before she was issued a permission slip to take him to the medical point, during which time his condition, which appeared to be hypothermia, had worsened dramatically.
The look in her eyes — the only thing visible through her black abaya — suggested she knew her son was about to become a statistic.
Since December, some 25,000 people have fled the fighting in the last of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) territory in Deir Ezzor province, nearly triple what aid agencies had been prepared for.
On the weekend, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched its final push to eliminate ISIL fighters holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq.
Islamic State extremists cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters’ advances.
No one knows exactly how many ISIL fighters are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, although they are estimated to be in the hundreds, most of them foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.
But trucks and civilians continue to flee the area, overwhelming the Kurdish-run camps where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meagre resources.
Conditions are so bad that in the past two months 35 children have died from cold or malnutrition, either in or on their way to al-Hol, earning it the nickname the “Camp of Death.”
Two Canadian women were among the civilians fleeing the area.
Dura Ahmed, 28, from Toronto, was studying English and Middle Eastern studies in Canada when her husband persuaded her to travel to Syria.
“My husband came here first in 2012,” she told CNN. “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.”
The mother of two boys eventually travelled to the city of Raqqa.
“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.”
Next to Ahmed was another women, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Alberta, who declined to give her name. She left for Syria also 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 told CNN.
As a Muslim wife you have to obey
Her first husband, a Bosnian, left Canada to join ISIL as a cook, she said. After he was killed, she remarried a Canadian but he was also killed in fighting.
The woman, also a mother of two, said she did not know about ISIL before travelling to Syria.
“I’m not the kind of person who watched the news. 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.”
The two women, like the other refugees, are likely to end up in al-Hol, a grubby field on the edge of what was once ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate, now controlled by the SDF.
Some 3,100 foreign women and children are being held in al-Hol and nearby Roj camp. They have been separated from their husbands and other foreign men, who are being detained in prisons around northern Syria. The camp lacks around 2,000 tents, meaning thousands are sleeping rough in its reception area where they are exposed to rain and freezing temperatures. Without enough lavatories to accommodate the mushrooming population, children defecate out in the open.
During a visit by The Daily Telegraph this week a group of women from central Asia stood in the rain shouting in broken Arabic at the exasperated manager. “There are no more tents and we are out in the cold,” they pleaded. “You can’t just leave us like this, we’ll die out here.”
He could do little more than tell them they would have to wait until aid agencies delivered some more.
As the drizzle turned into a downpour the women pulled their black abayas up out of the sodden earth and clutched their children, whose clothes are even less suited to the inclement weather.
For locals, al-Hol is a displacement camp which they are free to leave as long as they have a sponsor on the outside and money to do so.
For foreigners, accused of being ISIL members, it is a detention centre, where they wait in limbo as their home countries decide what to do with them.
The role women played in the caliphate varied. Most were housewives, allowed out of the home only to go to the mosque or the market. Others were thought to have been involved in the recruitment and radicalization of other women online.
SDF officials say some of the women have rejected ISIL ideology but a few continue to practise fundamentalist versions of Islam in the camps, which have become increasingly lawless as they have grown in size.
“We thought we could put them (the foreigners) together with the Syrians and Iraqis and they would adapt. But some of them are very extreme and called them infidels and burned their tents,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, the camp’s head of relations.
The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the ISIL extremists’ territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq. That in turn, would open the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria.
However, U.S. officials and Trump’s own military advisers have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean that the Islamic State group is defeated.
Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said ISIL is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory.
— With files from The Associated Press