Syr­ian civil­ians flee­ing IS in Raqa turn to smug­glers

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Civil­ians flee­ing the Is­lamic State group’s Syr­ian bas­tion of Raqa are pay­ing smug­glers to lead them out of the city safely, only to find them­selves caught up in har­row­ing at­tacks. Tens of thou­sands of civil­ians have fled Raqa and the sur­round­ing prov­ince since the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) be­gan an of­fen­sive to cap­ture the ji­hadist strong­hold last year.

But the jour­ney is per­ilous, with IS pre­vent­ing civil­ians from aban­don­ing its shrink­ing ter­ri­tory and en­forc­ing its ban with deadly vi­o­lence. In the Ain Issa camp, where thou­sands of peo­ple dis­placed from Raqa have sought refuge, many civil­ians say they were promised safe pas­sage by smug­glers who ended up lead­ing them into deadly sit­u­a­tions. Ali, 25, asked around in his vil­lage of Qah­taniya, about six kilo­me­ters north­west of Raqa, to find a smug­gler.

“The smug­glers don’t re­veal their real names, they use false ones. Ours called him­self ‘Al-Hout’ (The Whale),” he said. “I agreed with The Whale on the de­tails and I paid him 222,000 Syr­ian pounds ($418),” he said, an amount that cov­ered him and eight fam­ily mem­bers, the youngest of them a five-year-old child. On the night of their es­cape, they left the vil­lage in Ali’s car at 2:00 am and headed for a ren­dezvous point where the smug­gler and other flee­ing civil­ians were wait­ing. The smug­gler moved ahead of the group and then brought them to a halt.

“We ar­rived at a place that he told us was safe, and then we came un­der a bar­rage of Daesh gun­fire,” Ali said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for IS. He gunned his car en­gine and man­aged to reach a nearby SDF check­point safely, but a woman who had joined them at the meet­ing point was wounded in the at­tack. “We don’t know what hap­pened to her, but the blood of those (who have died flee­ing) is on the hands of the smug­glers,” he said.

Cap­tured by IS

The Kur­dish and Arab fighters of the SDF en­tered Raqa in June and have since cap­tured more than 40 per­cent of the city from IS. But the UN es­ti­mates that be­tween 20,000 and 50,000 civil­ians re­main trapped in­side in dire con­di­tions. The UN says civil­ians are pay­ing be­tween 75,000 and 150,000 Syr­ian pounds ($150-$300) per per­son to smug­glers to or­ga­nize their es­cape.

When Ahmed al-Hus­sein, 35, de­cided to flee Raqa, he agreed to pay a smug­gler 70,000 Syr­ian pounds and hand over his mo­tor­bike, worth an­other 30,000 Syr­ian pounds, when he reached safety.

“We were a group of 250 peo­ple. We were mov­ing for 15 hours un­til we reached an SDF check­point in the AlMazeila area, 23 kilo­me­ters north­west of Raqa, at the break of dawn,” he told AFP.

“As soon as we ar­rived, the ji­hadists launched an at­tack on the area, and we were caught in the cross­fire. The smug­glers dis­ap­peared com­pletely.” IS cap­tured him and other civil­ians and took them to the vil­lage of AlSal­i­hiya, where they beat them and stole their money and iden­tity pa­pers. They also in­ter­ro­gated the civil­ians, try­ing to learn who had smug­gled them out. “It was im­pos­si­ble be­cause we re­ally had no idea. The smug­glers could have been Daesh them­selves,” he said. — AFP

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