[Published here on February 14, 2019]
The cry echoed across the chalk-dry Syrian plain: “Water!” Within seconds, the truck carrying a few dozen bottles was emptied by parched refugees who had spent the night out in the open.
At least 300 women and children, mostly Iraqi, had slept amid the desert scrubs after escaping the Islamic State group’s final redoubt of Baghouz in eastern Syria.
A lucky few got tents, but the vast majority were spread out on cheap blankets provided to them by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who also handed out the few cases of bottled water and some food.
No humanitarian organisations were present at the location.
“The kids were crying all night from the cold,” said Fatima, an Iraqi woman from Baghdad who fled Baghouz with her four children, all under 15.
“This is the second night we sleep outside. There was so much bombing in Baghouz that it was safer for us to sleep in the open,” she told AFP.
The displaced families were waiting to be processed by SDF members then transported by cargo truck six hours north to the Al-Hol displacement camp.
“At least in a camp, we’ll have a tent,” snapped Fatima.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the sun was at its peak, the situation at the collection point was reaching fever pitch.
Children with no shoes were plopped in the dirt, sliding small pebbles and sand in their mouths. One of them kept chewing on a plastic spoon.
– Dirty nappies –
The cracked earth all around them was littered with empty bottles and dirty nappies.
An adolescent girl in a headscarf approached a boy her age who had been quick enough to grab a styrofoam container of rice and green peppers from the SDF truck.
“Can you share?” she asked timidly as he scooped food into his mouth with his soot-covered palms.
He waved her away and her thin face twisted into a silent sob.
Food, safe drinking water and medication have been scarce for weeks in Baghouz as the SDF closes in on the final patch still held by IS.
Those who manage to flee say the jihadists have used them as human shields, hoarding food and blocking them from leaving.
Hoda, 32, told AFP she only worked up the courage to leave when she saw her neighbours streaming out of their houses.
“We walked without hesitation, even though snipers were shooting at us and there was bombing,” said Huda, who fled with her two toddlers.
“We walked and walked for three or four hours, carrying our kids and clothes. We were so thirsty, but we couldn’t carry water with us,” she said.
She had even brought a blanket with her but was forced to leave it on the road out of Baghouz as it was too heavy.
– Clouds of dust –
Every hour, pickup trucks zipped past the families, bringing newly displaced people to a search point and sending clouds of dust into the mouths of crying children.
The SDF has said it was surprised by the large groups of civilians still in Baghouz — which has both slowed their offensive against IS and overwhelmed their limited humanitarian capacities.
The backbreaking load Rughaya Ibrahim, 37, carried from Baghouz was too precious to leave behind.
Her eight-year-old son Maan was caught in a mortar attack two days ago that broke his right leg and peppered it with shrapnel.
When she fled with her sister and their children, they put Maan on a makeshift wooden stretcher.
“We would carry him for a little and then have to put him down, up and down,” Ibrahim told AFP.
They, too, are from Iraq and will be taken to a camp for the displaced further north.
When they approached the cargo truck that would take them, the truck driver told them to leave the wooden stretcher.
“There’s no space for it. Take him off and climb in,” he barked.