Bullets flew by our faces and smacked into the ground around us. Snipers were shooting at us from the tent-and-truck city that was Baghuz, the last physical stronghold of Islamic State (ISIS). Below us, in a smoke-and-dust-shrouded valley at a bend in the Euphrates River, was the distillation of the most hard-core living ISIS members.
The battle being fought out in this little corner of the Syrian desert began when ISIS militants, with their families, had retreated from Mosul, Iraq, pushed out by the Iraqi army and coalition forces, to Raqqa, Syria, the last capital of the ISIS caliphate. From there, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had taken over the offensive and, with the help of air and artillery support of the coalition, had pushed them out to Deir Ezzor. The fight had continued, and the last remnants of ISIS were steadily pushed back along the east side of the Euphrates to Baghuz on the Iraq-Syria border.
Now, the thousands of people remaining were compressed into a dense collection of trucks and tents. We could see bunkers under many of the trucks and what looked like tunnel entrances. An ISIS woman from Norway who had fled earlier told us that there were more than 30,000 people packed into this last small space and each person had only a 3-by-6-foot space to live in. “It is a horrible, dirty, starving, stinking place of constant maiming and death,” she said.