OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — Dozens of women, enrobed in black, huddled with their children in circles in the chilly desert Monday night after they were searched and screened in the dark following their evacuation from the last pocket held by the Islamic State group in Syria.
It was the second organized mass evacuation since Friday, when hundreds left the same area in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. The evacuation of men, women and children comes amid a standoff between the militants and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces besieging them in a small sliver of land along the Euphrates river.
The evacuees arrived in over 40 trucks used for transporting sheep from Baghouz, where about 300 IS fighters are believed to be holed up with civilians in a dramatic final showdown. The presence of thousands of civilians in the small speck of land has surprised officials and slowed the campaign to declare the military defeat of the extremist group.
Those arriving from the tiny IS enclave included Syrians, Iraqis, French, Polish, Tajiks, Egyptians and others.
Exhausted and bewildered, the women and children looked spooked by the cameras as several journalists approached them in the nighttime darkness. The evacuees were lit only by the vehicles of the SDF parked nearby.
Toddlers were in tears and mothers looked for diapers for their babies after their trip over a rugged road for a couple of hours to the desert screening area.
Men were separated from the women and children. Soldiers said they were checking for any sharp objects, weapons or information about the militants remaining inside.
A woman who identified herself as Um Ahmed, or mother of Ahmed in Arabic, said she had been with the IS fighters until the end because she didn't have the money to pay for smugglers. Pregnant and traveling with two children and a wounded husband, she looked tired and was perched over her few belongings, resting her head and arms on her legs.
Once a truce was in place days ago, she managed to get out after having moved with the militants from town to town.
"Every time we got to a place, there were airstrikes and we had to leave," she said, explaining she had been on the move from Iraq's Anbar province into Baghouz as IS militants retreated.
Those who left Baghouz said IS leaders had ordered their evacuation.
SDF officials predicted a military offensive will follow after the last civilian has left the IS pocket.
A Syrian woman in her 20s said she was a widow and had been living in a house with other widows. She said their stipend distributed by IS had stopped in recent days as the siege tightened.
"My husband is dead and there was no one to tell me any news. I was like all the other widows," she said without giving her name.
Many of those interviewed have used aliases or declined to give their names for security reasons.
The military campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern banks of the Euphrates began in September, pushing them down toward this last corner. The evacuees said food was running low and clean water and medicine were scarce. Despite its demise, many defended what remained of the group's territorial hold, which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the militants are desperate to cause damage and have tried to smuggle weapons and infiltrate fighters among men and women leaving Baghouz.
"We found silencers, bombs, and a suicide belt. This signals that IS tries to benefit from the exit of civilians to smuggle its cells outside," Bali said.