'We Were Eating Grass': Syrians Flee As Fight Pushes On Against Last ISIS Remnants The last U.S.-led offensive against ISIS in Syria is taking place in a remote desert region. The al-Hol refugee camp is overwhelmed with new arrivals.
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'We Were Eating Grass': Syrians Flee As Fight Pushes On Against Last ISIS Remnants

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'We Were Eating Grass': Syrians Flee As Fight Pushes On Against Last ISIS Remnants

'We Were Eating Grass': Syrians Flee As Fight Pushes On Against Last ISIS Remnants

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are still refugees fleeing from the last pockets of ISIS-controlled areas in the country. Many say they held out for years but had to leave their homes recently because of the U.S.-led offensive to defeat the militants. There's been little word on what life has been like amid the fighting in the desert region. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was in Syria and talked to the refugees.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The al-Hol refugee camp is overwhelmed with new arrivals. Hundreds of women all dressed in black wait for tents and blankets in a long line in the bitterly cold wind. Seeing us arrive, they crowd around and beg for help.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: These refugees have just fled towns where the U.S.-led coalition fights ISIS.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Fifteen-year-old Ahmed tells us he and his family worked for days to get out. Like most of the people we speak to in this camp, he's been through such an ordeal that he's scared even to give his full name.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) We couldn't leave by car. We escaped on foot.

SHERLOCK: ISIS charged $1,500 for cars to get through their checkpoints, money most couldn't afford. And in any case, people were afraid that their vehicles would be targeted by coalition planes.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) We walked. We came with just the clothes on our backs. We slept in the desert in the rain.

SHERLOCK: He says the freezing winter temperatures claimed victims on the journey.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) We escaped with other families. And on the way, a young girl and two men died on the road. They froze to death. Somebody in the group had shovels. So we buried their bodies.

SHERLOCK: In a concrete shelter in the middle of the camp, women cook on gas stoves on the floor. They held out living under ISIS for years. And 28-year-old Fatema Ahmed (ph) tells us it was the coalition airstrikes that ultimately forced them from their homes.

FATEMA AHMED: (Through interpreter) So many people have died who didn't deserve it. Even if you were just waiting in line outside for food, you could get hit. And there are no hospitals left for people to get treated. There's no medication because there was a siege. There's nothing left.

SHERLOCK: The subject of airstrikes is a controversy here. Shadi, a skinny man in his 20s, interrupts.

SHADI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He's spent two years on the frontlines as a member of the U.S.'s locally allied militia, the SDF. He says he believes the coalition airstrikes are precise.

SHADI: (Speaking Arabic).

ABDULLAH BADRY: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But he's interrupted by Abdullah Badry, who lost his 4-year-old daughter in a strike.

BADRY: (Through interpreter) Precision? There's no precision. We were there while you were on the side of the frontline. So many of the people being bombed are civilians. The bombing is random. I swear for every ISIS person you kill, you hit 20 civilians. I lived this in real time.

SHERLOCK: Both men forget our interview and argue with each other.

BADRY: (Speaking in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: President Trump has decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. But, for now, they remain fighting ISIS, a group that the U.S. says threatens countries beyond these borders. I ask the refugees if they think this war is necessary.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: No, they exclaim, talking over one another. Fatema says no one here really believes that ISIS is this great international threat.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) The only thing ISIS got involved with is telling us how to dress. We should cover ourselves and keep our voices low. Other than that, everybody is living their own life.

SHERLOCK: Even Shadi, the man who fights ISIS alongside the U.S., says most of the people he knows who joined ISIS aren't terrorists. They're motivated by local reasons, like to fight other militias in the Syrian civil war. And he subscribes to the common conspiracy theory that the claim the ISIS is a global threat is a cover story.

SHADI: (Through interpreter) This is for the media. There are things that are said on TV. And then there are things that happen under the table.

SHERLOCK: The real reason the U.S. is in Syria, he thinks, is for the control of land and oil. U.S. officials have repeatedly denied claims like these. In a statement to NPR, a spokesperson said the U.S. mission in Syria is to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS. And the U.S. says it tries to avoid civilian deaths but is fighting a ruthless enemy that hides among civilians. But Syrians in this camp don't believe that reasoning.

BADRY: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: And the man who lost his 4-year-old girl, Abdullah Badry, says this matters because if locals don't support the war, it's just going to create more extremism.

BADRY: (Through interpreter) Our children used to fear the word death. Now it's normal for children to see dead bodies. Now they stand over dead bodies, picking up the limbs with us - young children picking up limbs. This drives people to extremism because this strips people of their fear.

SHERLOCK: And he says, someday, the fear will be replaced by anger. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northeast Syria.

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