‘We do this for a living’: Truckers play perilous role as emptiers of ISIS’s last pocket

Hardy local drivers are entering Baghouz to take fighters and their families out of the encampment

Around 40 battered trucks sit idle in the Syrian desert, waiting to pick up more human cargo.

On the rough ground in front of the vehicles, 52 men are directed into rows by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where they sit in the dust, their heads bowed.

All are suspected members of ISIS who have surrendered from the eastern Syrian pocket of Baghouz, which has been reduced to a 700 metre square patch of farmland and hamlets on a bend of the Euphrates River where the last diehard fighters and followers have been corralled.

The men walked out in the night, many likely renouncing earlier vows of martyrdom as dreams of the “caliphate” became a relentless nightmare. After being searched and questioned by SDF intelligence and screened by US soldiers, they will be driven to crowded prisons.

Only some of the trucks will be transporting these men today. The rest have a different mission: to drive to the edge of the ISIS encampment itself to evacuate those who wish to leave before SDF fighters move in to perform their final sweep. The final operation is a formidable task given the number of mines ISIS has laid, in addition to the near certainty of further suicide attacks by the most fanatical surviving holdouts.

Trucks wait to receive surrendering ISIS fighters and civilians, outside Baghouz ,Syria, 7 March 2019.

Many of the drivers have plied their trade across battle lines throughout the Syrian civil war, moving between the regime, ISIS, and Kurdish-controlled areas to earn a living. They now have the perilous task of emptying Baghouz.

Hardy men riding ancient Scania, Isuzu and Mercedes rigs, they are used to both danger and the hardships of living on the road – dossing down at night swaddled in blankets in their cabs and brewing tea in the morning from mobile kitchens on the side of their trailers.

Their trucks run on diesel refined in roadside stills, and the drivers are adept at making the roadside repairs necessary to keep their engines running on the crude fuel.

Abdulaziz, a garrulous 40-year-old driver from the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh, said that doing this work is the only way he can provide for his five young children. The SDF asked the media not to reveal the men’s full names for fear of reprisals.

“We do this for a living,” he said of his trips into the encampment, standing in the desert outside Baghouz, amid abandoned clothing, piles of confiscated medication, and empty food wrappers left from previous evacuations.

An SDF fighter waits for surrendering ISIS members outside Baghouz ,Syria, 7 March 2019.

ISIS once had a reputation for slaughtering any drivers in its territory suspected of belonging to the Shia sect of Islam, and those caught smuggling contraband could face similar treatment. And with the surviving fighters cornered and desperate, they could try anything to escape or gain a last bargaining chip in the form of another hostage.

In spite of the militant group’s ferocious reputation, Abdulaziz sees his unarmed journey into the last remnant of ISIS’s proto-state as just another day of work. “They don’t do anything to us because we are taking their families out,” he said.

A week after US-backed Syrian forces announced that only terrorists remained in Baghouz and that an offensive to retake the last ISIS-held territory had begun, civilians are still being evacuated from the militant’s last redoubt.

With Syrian regime forces facing the remaining ISIS holdouts across the river and SDF fighters surrounding them, there is no escape – as some 400 fighters who the SDF captured on Wednesday discovered after attempting to break out of the enclave. As food and medical supplies run low, the SDF says it will be only a matter of time before their final defeat.

Men who surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces waited ot be transported to prison, outside Baghouz, Syria, 8 March 2019.

But, by last Saturday, fighting was largely paused as fighters began to surrender and women and children emerged from the pocket in startling numbers. Thousands of men and women who remained with ISIS until the very end have since left the area in recent days. That has left only some of the most hardcore followers of the group’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi inside.

Photos taken from bluffs overlooking the Baghouz encampment show a tent city the size of a music festival. Hundreds of men have laid down their weapons and approached the bottom of the bluffs, begging SDF fighters above for food and cigarettes, according to Dave Eubanks, a humanitarian worker. But they remain reluctant to formally surrender, he said. Many are Iraqi and fear torture if sent back.

Meanwhile, as some SDF fighters have engaged with the men below, ISIS snipers continue to fire from inside Baghouz. It is a confusing scene, Mr Eubanks said, suggesting a lack of centralised ISIS control, and a level of behind the scenes negotiation between at least some SDF and ISIS fighters.

The two enemies seem to have reached an understanding of a sort: a ceasefire will be observed for as long as it takes to evacuate those who wanted to leave the Baghouz pocket. It appears that the end of ISIS will be brought about largely by negotiations and not fighting, the speed of which will likely be determined by the increasingly hungry and desperate fighters surviving on dwindling rations.

“It could finish tomorrow, or it could end in a month,” Mr Eubank says.

Adnan Afrin, an SDF commander, denies there are negotiations ongoing. “We want to finish this today, but unfortunately the civilians are an obstacle,” he said, estimating that at least 1,000 still remain inside.

Meanwhile, the pause in fighting allows the truckers to continue their work.

Long drives across and through ISIS-held territory when the group was ascendant has taught Abdulaziz how to operate among the extremists. Hiding his cigarettes and ensuring the truck carried no images of people or animals were just two parts of his safety protocol. A peacock design on one of the drivers’ trucks had the head scratched out, in deference to the ISIS prohibition on representations of living creatures.

Trucks drive through the desert to pick up surrendering ISIS fighters and their supporters, outside Baghouz ,Syria, 7 March 2019.

Clean-shaven now, Abdulaziz said he previously grew his beard long to move through ISIS territory. He relied on smooth-talking to negotiate the many checkpoints between Raqqa and on to the capital Damascus, carrying loads of vegetables, animal feed, and sheep.

On Friday, he expected to be transporting human sheep, he said, laughing in the cold night air as a coalition jet roared somewhere overhead. So far, he has made three trips into the enclave to pick up civilians and surrendering fighters.

“Every time we think will be the last trip, but they keep emerging from underground,” he said of the unexpected numbers still inside the tent encampment, living in tunnels and foxholes. “ISIS once stretched across Iraq and Syria, now all their dregs are concentrated in this tiny area.”

Many of those surrendering bear serious injuries from the ongoing bombardment. Coalition aircraft have carried out strikes on Baghouz, while SDF fighters have directed rocket, artillery and heavy machine gun fire at the ISIS camp.

Near the trucks laid the lifeless body of a man – one of those wounded who had been evacuated earlier in the day but died en route. A plastic airway tube entered his nose and a cannula in his arm showed that he had received some level of care after being injured, but it was not clear what caused his injuries.

The grave of a man who died while being evacuated from Baghouz, Syria, 8 March 2019.

A slight man with a black beard covered in dust and his lips drawn back to reveal stained teeth, he lay curled up on a mattress in a filthy shirt with a floral-patterned blanket covering him. As a group of drivers gathered around the corpse, his sightless eyes stared out into the night.

“Where’s Baghdadi now?” one of the drivers asked.

Despite the jokes at the dead man’s expense, the drivers later buried the body on the spot in a shallow grave.

The drivers mounded powdery soil over the suspected militant’s corpse, dampening it down with water to slow the wind from blowing it away. The desert soil underneath the mattress on which he had laid was dry, save for a patch where blood had soaked through to the earth.

The burial probably wouldn’t stop the wild dogs from exhuming the corpse, but as Abdulaziz noted, it was more than ISIS ever did for their victims.

“In Islam, if you want to respect the dead, you must bury them,” he said.