She was covered from head to toe in black. Identifying herself only as Um Bassam, the mother of Bassam, she told me she was 25 years old, the mother of four children, a widow, and from the city of Aleppo.
All around her were clusters of other women with similar stories, also clad in black, faces concealed, with their children huddled beside them. It had rained just a few hours before. Babies were crying. Used diapers, discarded clothing, bags, empty tins of beans and hummus, and human feces littered the ground.
Even with this misery as a backdrop, Um Bassam didn’t hesitate to declare her unwavering devotion to the so-called Islamic State, now in its dying days.
Speaking the Arabic of someone who is educated, she explained calmly and with conviction why she remained committed to the idea of the Islamic State.
“We just wanted to live in peace and wear our Islamic clothing, not to go out, not to see men and to be ruled by the law of the Almighty,” she explained.
Um Bassam was speaking from a non-descript spot on the eastern Syrian plains. She and hundreds of other women and children had been trucked in the afternoon before from the outskirts of Baghouz, ISIS’ last speck of land in Syria.
US President Donald Trump declared Thursday that ISIS had lost 100% of its territory in Syria, but that was news to an official from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who told CNN the fighting was still ongoing.
The official said more than a thousand civilians had left the last ISIS enclave within the last few hours, joining the more than ten thousand who have fled in recent weeks and been taken into custody by the SDF.
They will eventually end up in what can only be described as internment camps for the former subjects of ISIS.
Um Bassam conceded that ISIS had made mistakes. “Yes, there were excesses,” she said, “but it was still the Islamic state and that is what we wanted.”
She said her husband, who she described as a “manager” for ISIS, had been killed in an airstrike in Raqqa two years ago.
When asked why so many people had wanted to be free of the Islamic State during the battle to drive ISIS out of Mosul two years ago, she was dismissive.
“They were farmers,” she said. “Their women wore pink and red and they didn’t cover their faces. When it arrived, the Islamic State forced the women to cover up and they didn’t like it. The [Islamic] State was rough with them and they resented it.”
What about the videos posted by ISIS showing, in gruesome detail, beheadings, burnings and mass executions?
“Yes, they were terrifying and shocking,” she conceded, adding, “but that is the law of the Almighty.”
And the mass murder or enslavement of minority religious group the Yazidis? The slaughter of Shia Muslims?
“All we know is the book and the law of the Almighty says whoever fights Sunnis, whoever kills Sunnis, whoever does not rule by the law of the Almighty, then that’s it,” she replied. “They must be slaughtered. That is the law of the Almighty. We can’t change it.”
Nearby, volunteer medics from the Christian humanitarian group the Free Burma Rangers – the only group here providing first aid, food, water and blankets – were struggling to convince a Moroccan woman to allow them to apply fresh bandages to the stump where her left foot once was. She refused to let either male or female medics touch her.
“You can smell it,” David Eubanks, the head of the team, called out to his colleagues, looking at the bloodied bandage. “I think she’s saying that she’s waiting for her husband to come and her husband wouldn’t agree to this.”
Under these dusty, dirty conditions, the wound was in danger of putrifying. But for the woman, it was better to suffer excruciating pain than the touch of those she sees as infidels.
Children of ISIS
ISIS’ twisted ideology has also been hammered into the young.
Mahmoud, aged 15, comes from outside Aleppo. When asked how he had ended up in Syria’s far east, he replied: “The Shari’a brought us to Baghouz. Islam brought us here.”
When asked if the Islamic State was, as one of its most popular slogans goes, remaining and expanding, he looked down and said under his breath: “In sha Allah,” God willing.
“Haven’t you read the Qur’an,” he asked, his voice rising. “Don’t you know the verses of the Qur’an that say the Islamic State will experience hardship and then God will grant it victory?”
“Relief is at hand,” he insisted, the implication being at this late hour, the tide will turn and ISIS will miraculously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The sentiment was echoed by another woman in black, speaking from the back of a truck.
“God is testing us,” she said. “The unworthy will leave and the righteous will remain.”
The truck started to pull away.
“Perhaps we are unworthy,” she called out.
As the truck drove away, a boy sitting next to her – he appeared to be in his early teens – smiled at the woman, then turned his eyes on me.
The state that called itself Islamic may be about to die. But the idea lives.