They've helped women, children, along with some men, from France, Canada, Russia, a handful from the UK, along with others from the Maldives, Egypt and Bosnia. "It's like the whole world was there," says Paul Curtis Bradley, the team chaplain for the Free Burma Rangers (FBR). After five weeks near the front line of the last battle against ISIS in Syria, he and his team reflect on the deaths, suffering and struggles they saw, and the aid they gave to tens of thousands of people.
The FBR is a humanitarian relief organization that works in conflict zones. In Burma for 20 years, they have been doing missions to Iraq since 2014, and in Syria since 2015. This time was different. With the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the verge of defeating ISIS in its last small stronghold along the Euphrates River, the FBR team thought they'd help a few people leave Baghuz for a few days, support the SDF and then go do other aid work in eastern Syria. The situation was bad in Baghuz, and the SDF said, "We need you there." With their convoy of SUVs, the team, including a Kurdish, Iraqi and Burmese member, came down to the front line.
They ended up spending almost two months, encountering 22,000 people, and providing food, water, diapers, blankets and medical care. Most of these people were women and children who were likely either ISIS members, or whose husbands were.
"We were on the front with SDF. We slept with them among the units, because that is where the IDPs [internally displaced persons] were initially coming out and crossing at night, and we were able to receive those people in the beginning. But as the flow got bigger and they sent trucks into the city, 30 to 40 at a time, then we moved to where the holding area was, and we were going back and forth to these holding areas," says Bradley.
Bradley is the team's "Swiss Army knife," he says. In addition to being chaplain, he's also a team leader who does logistics and security. With long experience in the most difficult battles in Iraq, his team has gotten their system down to a smooth-running operation. He provides a unique eye into what happened in Baghuz, and the surprising numbers of people who were found in this last ISIS-held area.
Scenes of thousands of women clad all in black, with little children in tow, were normal throughout February. To handle the huge numbers, the SDF would arrange trucks to bring the refugees to a rear area. The FBR medics made themselves available, and those in need only needed to walk 200 meters to get aid. "Our medics treated 4,000 patients. And our Karen (minority group from Burma) medic even delivered two babies."
Because most of those leaving Baghuz were ISIS supporters the SDF separated the women and children from the men, who were likely to be more dangerous and may have been fighters. Bradley's team mostly saw women, but men with wounds from mortars and airstrikes would be brought over for assistance. There were no other humanitarian organizations providing this kind of work, and the SDF is a military force that wasn't prepared for such a huge number of civilians.
But security must have been a concern. "When the numbers grew, there were rumors that there could be suicide vests. The SDF said they found two suicide vests among the ladies. That was the only thing that we heard."
The operation to defeat ISIS in Baghuz became a siege throughout February, with the SDF and the coalition wanting to end the standoff. A deal was quietly made, in order to give ISIS and the people in Baghuz time to leave and surrender. Prior to the deal, ISIS had ordered its people not to leave. Some who wanted to flee had paid between $100 and $1,000 to be smuggled out.
ISIS changed its strategy, deciding to allow surrender, perhaps under an impression that their "caliphate" could be reconstituted elsewhere. This surprised Dave Eubank, the FBR leader. "I'm surprised seeing ISIS guys that are alive, we haven't seen these guys a lot. In Mosul, most we saw were dead." Now the men left their weapons and gave up instead of running for martyrdom.
Limited checks were made, and screening of those leaving included having the men subjected to some kind of biometrics, apparently to keep track of them after wherever they ended up being detained. Because ISIS members may not have IDs (many of the foreign volunteers having burned their passports years ago), facial recognition and fingerprints were taken.
The foreigners among the ISIS members have received a lot of attention. But Bradley says it's difficult to estimate their numbers. Perhaps 15% of those seen by his teammates were foreigners. They came from all over, from Canada, Russia, the UK, Egypt and Bosnia. Many still supported ISIS. Some of them said that life under ISIS wasn't bad. But others were more circumspect. One Russian woman told Bradley's colleagues that her husband was still in Baghuz. "I hope he dies there."
For the Free Burma Rangers, faith drives their attempt to show love to people whom many would spurn. "Our hope and prayer is that will create a crack of doubt, really. One out of 10 showed cracks of doubt. It's worth it to find those."
Some find that difficult to understand. Love conquers hate, says Bradley. "They were dehydrated, hungry, and shot up. We treated one small five-year-old who had been shot in the head by ISIS as they fled."
Vengeance is not ours to take, Bradley says. "Justice, yes, God ordains justice. But vengeance is when you add a 'rub it in your face' that God warns against."
The FBR received donations to help the thousands of people leaving Baghuz. "An organization called Bring Hope donated all our medicine." In addition, 5,000 packs of bread and 7,000 cases of water were brought from Qamishli in Syria.
"It was unbelievable, the amount of logistics. We also had to keep moving them to different locations. I lost 10 pounds moving the stuff, doing relief work cross-fit," says Bradley, chuckling as he looks back on it.
The team also had to face the brutal realities of the conflict. Some of the members of the Yazidi minority that ISIS massacred and kidnapped in 2014, were found in Baghuz. Of 3,000 missing Yazidi women and children, a handful were able to escape.
"I sat down and had a small dinner with 11 Yazidi boys. Two were from Shaheen's village, our interpreter who was killed in Mosul [in 2017]. All but one had lost their language. The oldest was 13. Four-and-a-half years they have been gone, and who knows what happened to them? I saw on the news that two of them were reunited with family already," says Bradley.
Men who saw the boys freed from the clutches of ISIS broke down and wept. It was a sobering moment. "There is news and rumors that a lot of the [Yazidi] women were killed. We didn't see as many Yazidi women. There were more kids than women."
ISIS is on the run today. But Bradley and others are concerned that they are still a threat. "There are reports of sleeper cells. They are already carrying out attacks in Manbij and Raqqa, and so we know for sure there are small groups."
ISIS can't physically hold ground because of the overwhelming force of the coalition and the SDF, but it's not finished. "This ideology is not finished. This ideology will continue on, maybe this is part of their strategy to let the wives and children to go and continue on with the ideology after the men martyr themselves."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.