[Published here on February 15, 2019]
As destitute civilians stumble out of the Islamic State group’s last enclave in east Syria, a mixed bag of unlikely characters are pitching in to help get them to safety.
They include a team of medics led by an American veteran and his children as well as a group of truckers from a remote Syrian town.
Close to 40,000 have fled IS’s last Euphrates Valley bastions into territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, in pitiful conditions after weeks of bombardment and food shortages.
Citing security concerns, global aid agencies have kept their distance from the town of Baghouz where the jihadists are making a last stand and the SDF’s limited humanitarian capacities cannot cope with the influx.
Enter the Free Burma Rangers (FBR).
Led by a US veteran and passionate Christian, David Eubank, the team of around 25 volunteers — including his wife and three children — is camped out on a plateau overlooking Baghouz that serves as the first stop for fleeing civilians.
“We’re not qualified to be here. I asked God, what would I do here?” Eubank told AFP, dressed in military fatigues and a fishing hat, a pistol holstered on his hip.
“I felt God say: ‘Give up your own way. Just come help,'” he said.
In the distance, about two dozen civilians could be seen shuffling towards the plateau from Baghouz.
Eubank and another volunteer were the first to descend the sandy bank to meet them, hoisting displaced women’s overstuffed bags over their shoulders and helping children scramble up.
– ‘God sent us here’ –
One bearded volunteer tended to a thin boy’s chest wound, shouting for antibiotics in English as the child stared at him in confusion.
Eubank established the FBR in Burma in 1997, with a slogan drawn from a Bible verse calling on people to “preach good news to the poor” and “release the oppressed”.
After IS swept across the region in 2014, the FBR expanded to Iraq, where Eubank, his wife and their three children became local celebrities for rescuing a young Iraqi girl after her mother was killed in fighting in Mosul.
What brought them to Syria? Another message from God, said Eubank’s eldest daughter, Sahale.
“We feel like God sent us here, otherwise we wouldn’t have wanted to come,” said the 18-year-old blonde, who usually drives wounded people to the main civilian point further on but was using a quiet afternoon to study Thai in the shade of an armoured personnel carrier.
When they’re not treating civilians, the rest of the team spends their spare time jogging through the Syrian plain, praying, and doing “camp stuff”, said 24-year-old volunteer Tyler Sheen.
Sheen, from Colorado, said he felt he was in the right place to witness the end of IS.
“It’s the scourge, the most talked about evil in the world so I think it’s a great place to be right now,” he told AFP.
The volunteers inevitably strike an odd figure in the Syrian plain, surrounded by gruff Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters with whom they can only communicate through translators.
When the SDF’s spokesman visited their outpost recently, Eubank grabbed his hands to lead him in prayer as a translator stood between them, as if presiding over a marriage ceremony.
– Cattle trucks –
But if the Eubanks are inspired by goodwill, the truckers who form another key link in the evacuation of civilians from Baghouz are motivated by financial rewards.
Once displaced families are taken to a larger collection point further away, they are screened and guided onto the backs of cargo trucks to be driven about six hours north to the Al-Hol displacement camp.
Their 11 drivers are tribesmen from the town of Al-Shuhayl, hired by the SDF at a rate of 75,000 Syrian pounds ($150) for each round-trip, which usually takes two days.
“Wherever there’s a trip we can earn from, we do it,” said one driver in his forties, Farhan al-Ali.
Some truckers said they rely on pills to stay awake through the 600-kilometre (380-mile) round trip.
“Sometimes we get to Al-Hol at two or three in the morning, then we drive all the way back to Shuhayl,” said Abu Hamud, a 54-year-old driver with a red-and-white scarf draped over his head.
They are used to shuttling cattle or farming equipment, so the dozens of veiled women and children are an unusual — and fragile — load.
The International Rescue Committee, which works in world crisis zones, said Wednesday that 51 people, mostly newborn children, had died after arriving at Al-Hol or during the “precarious journey”.
The United Nations has called on authorities to provide more suitable transportation like buses.
“My heart aches for the kids. They’re tiny and hungry,” said Abu Hamud. “I had a 20-day-old baby die in my truck.”