[Published here on February 11, 2019]
Two French women who fled the Islamic State group’s last pocket in Syria told AFP on Monday more foreigners were trapped inside, barred from leaving by Iraqi jihadists.
The Muslim converts said they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered IS-held holdout of Baghouz to territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
They said “massacres” had taken place in Baghouz, where others are still trapped with “nothing to eat”.
“There are many French, many muhajireen (foreigners who joined IS) and others who are trying to leave but they (IS) don’t let us,” said one.
“They said only the Syrians and Iraqis can be smuggled out,” said the woman, who said her first name was Christelle, from the city of Bordeaux.
She spoke to AFP from the back of a pickup truck packed with women and wailing children who would be taken to Kurdish-run prison camps in northern Syria.
Her two children, one and three, were laying on her lap, but she said her husband had died.
“What do I ask the French government? Just let me keep my kids. I just want my kids,” she said.
France has said it is considering repatriating around 130 of its nationals currently held by Kurdish authorities in Syria, but Christelle was not keen to go home.
“I would prefer to return to a different country where there is more Islam. We can’t practise our religion (fully) in France,” she said.
Like everyone else in the truck, Christelle kept her black veil on but her skeletal, dirty hands were visible. She wore a cheap-looking silver ring.
She told AFP that she converted to Islam and entered Syria in 2014 “for religion”.
Initially happy under the group, she now felt “tricked”.
“Propaganda. ‘Come to us, look at this beautiful life.’ We were robbed,” she said.
– No return? –
“Of course we regret it. We lost everything by coming here,” adding sourly of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “His family isn’t being massacred in there.”
She said she had never seen Baghdadi or senior French jihadists Jean-Michel and Fabien Clain, all of whom are still at large.
But, she claimed, the group’s Iraqi leadership “left a long time ago”.
“Daesh is Iraqis. It’s not an Islamic state, it’s an Iraqi state,” she said, using a Arabic acronym for IS.
A second French woman who escaped and was aboard the same truck said she also hoped to keep her two remaining children with her — but not necessarily in France.
“They don’t let us live our religion (to the full) in France. We have no rights. You cannot wear the niqab,” she said of the full veil.
She kept hers on during the interview, with only her pale blue eyes visible.
Also a Muslim convert, she said she left France in 2012 because of pressure by French authorities to assimilate or leave.
“So we left,” she said frankly.
About 10 other trucks packed with fleeing civilians were parked on a plain outside of Baghouz.
Locals driving the trucks said a total of 18 foreigners were among the dozens of civilians there on Monday, including Russians, Turks, and Ukrainians.
Journalists clamoured over the edges of the trucks to find non-Arabs among the fleeing civilians, shouting “France? France?”
Closer to the front, coalition troops were seen standing over about two dozen men who were suspected IS fighters.