Corpses and booby traps litter the last field of battle-scarred terrain that has finally been reclaimed from ISIS by US-backed forces.
Islamic State deployed suicide bombers, snipers, rockets and female fighters as they did everything in their power to desperately cling to Baghouz, eastern Syria.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared victory over the jihadists on Saturday in the remote village, after reducing their once terrifying proto-state to a ghostly riverside camp.
Bullet-riddled trucks, burnt out cars, sheets from tents used to cover their underground dwellings and rusted Kalashnikovs were the sorry remains of the once proud ‘caliphate.’
Smoke rising behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border, a day after the Islamic State group’s ‘caliphate’ was declared defeated by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) looks on while on watch duty in the village of Baghouz in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border on March 24, 2019, a day after the Islamic State
A discarded book written in Arabic and Russian, next to a broken gun, lying on the ground in the village of Baghouz in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border, a day after IS group’s ‘caliphate’ was declared defeated
A body, reported to be an Islamic State fighter is seen next to a destroyed vehicle in the final ISIL encampment on March 24, 2019 in Baghouz, Syria
A discarded landmine lying on the ground in the village of Baghouz. The jihadists used vicious means to make their last stand as difficult for the SDF fighters to defeat as they could, deploying booby traps across the field and underground network of the village
SDF warriors stand on the ramparts of a bombed-out building in Baghouz, some with their hands raised in the V for victory sign, others with their assault rifles held high, as they hoisted their flag proudly above the remote village on Sunday
From the top of an abandoned building overlooking the devastated encampment, SDF fighter Hamid Abdel Aal points to an earth berm half way to the Euphrates River.
‘We arrived at night. We were there at that barricade,’ says the man in his thirties, a checkered green scarf wrapped around his jet black hair.
‘In the morning, they attacked. They had snipers shooting at us,’ he says, a large yellow flag of the Kurdish-led SDF billowing behind him after their victory.
For four hours, the jihadists fought back, he said. But in the end, they retreated to the reedy river edges.
‘Eight of them blew themselves up. Others handed themselves over,’ says Abdel Aal, who has been fighting with the Kurdish-led SDF since 2016.
Abdel Aal, who hails from the northeastern Kurdish province of Hassakeh, shows off war scars acquired in years of battle.
On his right side is a gunshot wound sustained during the battle for the jihadists’ former de-facto Syrian capital of Raqa, on his neck a scar from a mine explosion.
Another fighter named Omar, a slim 31-year-old wearing a mismatching uniform, also recalls the past days of battle.
Even as SDF forces advanced backed by the air strikes of a US-led coalition, the jihadists ‘would attack sporadically’, he says.
‘Suicide bombers would leap out of tunnels. Most were foreigners – from Kazakhstan, France, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.’
An SDF fighter stands guard atop a building in the village of Baghouz as the battle field is filled with the detritus of the ‘caliphate’, reduced in their last months to desperate, starving squalor
Explosives belts meant to be detonated by suicide bombers are left on the ground beside broken car parts and an assortment of rubbish close to ISIS’ underground tents
Fighters of the SDF stand on top of a building in Baghouz with burnt out vehicles lying in waste in front of them on the rubble-filled track
A discarded improvised explosive device lying next to the burnt and rusted carcass of a wasted Kalashnikov assault rifle lying on the ground in Baghouz
Smoke rises in the background of the field with a bullet-riddled truck in the foreground which has had a machine gun turret fitted to its loading bay
An SDF warrior walks along a dirt track in Baghouz, surrounded by damaged vehicles and the underground hovels the once proud ‘caliphate’ had been reduced to sleeping inside
An SDF fighter surveys the bombed-out field below in the remote village close to the Euphrates River in eastern Syria – clothing and tent coverings can be seen scattered over the ground where thousands once lived
There was a time when the jihadists injected fear and claimed deadly attacks across the Middle East and beyond.
After declaring a ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq in 2014, they ruled over millions in territory the size of the United Kingdom.
But in the previously unheard of village of Baghouz, the group’s fighters have emerged from tunnels and caves in the rocky hillside to surrender.
On Sunday, dozens of people – mostly bearded men in heavy woollen tunics, some with their faces concealed in a scarf – trudge out of the battered camp.
‘They were hiding under the hill or in tunnels,’ Omar says.
An SDF militia man walks along a road in Baghouz, carefully looking at the ground which is strewn with landmines and improvised explosive devices
Cars lie in ditches at the side of the road after shells dropped on Baghouz devastated the village and everything within it. The SDF forces declared victory on Saturday and captured surrendering fighters
SDF fighters stand guard next to the remains of a motorcycle cart in the village of Baghouz, the day after they declared their victory over Islamic State
‘It’s normal. At any time, you can see them emerge from a trench,’ says the father of three girls and a boy, who has also fought the jihadists on other fronts.
‘The battles used to be more ferocious,’ Omar says.
‘They used to be at the peak of their force. They used car bombs, heavy artillery, drones, and planted explosive devices in homes,’ he says.
At the height of their rule, IS collected taxes and stamped their own coins.
Now all that remains of their ‘caliphate’ are charred vehicles, plastic basins, the odd gas stove, and blankets or sheets thrown over hastily dug-out trenches.
Two dead bodies, a blue plastic water can stuffed with explosives, and a book in the Cyrillic alphabet lie in the ruins.
‘Until the end, they had rocket-launchers. They would shoot at our cars from afar,’ says SDF fighter Hisham Haroun, a gun in its holster slung over his shoulder.
The final field has smoke pouring from its bombed-out buildings, while battered cars and trucks lie between the underground tents where the jihadists were forced to hide from SDF shelling
Bullet holes cover the facade of the buildings in Baghouz after the SDF unloaded thousands of rounds into the village. Ruined cars, trucks and motorcycles lie across the road with mounds of earth everywhere from where the jihadists had entrenched themselves
SDF fighters take a selfie among the ruins as they celebrate their victory over the Islamic State on Sunday – the buildings behind are mostly rubble after they received the backing of the US and shelled the village into total ruin
Explosive belts lie across the battle field as the suicidal jihadists prepared to be martyred in their futile resistance to the US-backed might of the SDF warriors
A flipped over truck is peppered with indentations from shrapnel impact as a dead Islamic State fighter lies beside it in Baghouz
An SDF fighter holds an upside down black Islamic State group flag as the warriors worked through the village to secure the remote village and capture evidence
‘They were strong, but it wasn’t the IS strength of yonder years,’ says the stocky combattant with grey eyes, a military cap on his head.
‘When we started fighting IS, they had combat expertise, military strategies,’ he says, a walkie-talkie clipped into his pocket.
‘But towards the end, it was like Tom and Jerry – like a mouse in a corner,’ he adds.
‘It no longer has a way out from the cat.’