Even when US coalition air strikes and artillery paused for people to evacuate during lulls in fighting, the killing did not stop in Daesh’s final enclave, Reuters reports.
Snipers in areas controlled by Syria’s government near the village of Baghouz picked off women and children fetching water from the river or climbing the small hill to seek medical help in Kurdish-controlled territory, survivors said.
People died from their wounds and children starved.
“There were lines of bodies, men, women and children. I didn’t count them,” said Katrin Aleksandr, a Ukrainian woman who left Baghouz in eastern Syria in the last days of the fighting.
She lay in a hospital bed with her head stitched up, two black eyes and shrapnel wounds to her limbs. Her husband, a militant, was killed in the air strike that wounded her.
“Everything was on fire, including tents people lived in,” she said.
Those who lived through the final days of Daesh’s self-declared caliphate said many people had stayed or were trapped in trenches, tunnels and tents in Baghouz.
Aleksandr and several other people interviewed by Reuters in camps and hospitals, including supporters and critics of Daesh, gave separate but similar accounts.
They say bombardment by US-backed forces and sniper fire from Syrian government areas killed scores, if not hundreds, as fighters and families scrabbled over food.
US-backed forces declared last month the full territorial defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Asked about events in Baghouz, the US-led coalition said it uses “stringent methods to … allow halts to strikes if any civilians would be put in danger,” and investigates all reports of civilian casualties.
The Syrian government and Shi’ite Muslim militias deny targeting civilians in fighting.
Daesh deployed car bombs and suicide belts during weeks of fighting for Baghouz. The Sunni Islamist group left a trail of destruction, killed thousands of people in the name of its narrow interpretation of Islam and helped cause many more deaths by trapping civilians in battles to drive it out.
But its adversaries have often used intense bombardment to end those battles in which civilians were killed, fuelling a humanitarian crisis and resentment among those who once lived in the areas it controlled.
In Mosul, the group’s Iraqi stronghold from 2014 to 2017, aerial and ground bombardment destroyed its centre and killed thousands of civilians, according to rights groups.
Raqqa in northern Syria, where Daesh planned attacks in European capitals, was largely destroyed in 2017 before some militants were allowed to evacuate. Many of them are thought to have ended up in Baghouz.
Daesh supporters, those who tolerated the group and even some critics say its defeat has come at too high a cost in lives and destruction, creating anger the militants are likely to try to exploit as they wage a growing insurgency.
“There’s no shelter in Baghouz, just trenches and tents. Shells landed every 20 minutes. I left after an explosion killed my husband and two of my children,” said Salma Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Moroccan Daesh supporter at al-Hol camp where many displaced by violence now live.
“Of people who went to the river to get water, maybe half returned,” she said.