NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Heading to a camp for displaced people as Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria faces final defeat, Ghalia Ali shows no regret about abandoning her life as a student in Tunisia to join the militants in 2014.
The young Tunisian-French woman was among truckloads of civilians leaving the militants’ last enclave in eastern Syria.
Like Ali, many were relatives of Islamic State fighters who have followed the group during years of retreat until it fell back to the village of Baghouz, now besieged by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“God’s world is big. The most important thing is that I do not return to France or Tunisia,” she told Reuters, saying life had been “impossible” for her in both places because of her decision to wear the full Islamic face veil, or niqab.
Accompanied only by her two young children at a checkpoint on the edge of Baghouz on Friday, Ali said she did not know what had happened to her Syrian husband from Latakia, an IS fighter who traveled with her to the village near the Iraqi border.
“He is somewhere … currently I truly don’t know where,” said Ali, laughing faintly beneath her veil.
Ali and her children, a girl aged nearly three and a 18-month-old boy, were headed to the al-Hol camp in SDF-controlled northeast Syria.
The SDF has said it wants all civilians evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to defeat or force surrender on the remaining fighters. The U.S.-led coalition has described those left inside as the “most hardened” IS militants.
The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among the civilians. Warplanes flew overhead on Friday as the evacuation continued, but there was no sound of bombing or clashes.
ADVERSITY IN FINAL ENCLAVE
Ali, who entered Syria from Turkey, lived under IS rule in towns including Jarablus, which was captured by Turkish forces and their Syrian allies in 2016, and in the jihadists’ de facto capital at Raqqa, which was seized by the SDF in 2017.
She spoke fondly of the last spell living in adversity in the final IS enclave. “In Baghouz, especially in the last period, I learnt perhaps all the principles of life,” she said.
It was the end point in a journey that started in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution that heralded the Arab uprisings, sweeping out the leaders of Libya, Egypt and Yemen, and presaging Syria’s own eight-year war.
Under the ousted Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, there was a “very harsh constraint on Muslims”, she said. She herself had not been particularly pious at that point, but something changed when she saw veiled Libyan women who had come to Tunis after their own uprising.
“I saw a woman wearing niqab, I was afraid as it was something strange in Tunis,” Ali said. Adopting the dress herself, she then faced difficulties continuing her studies at the French institute in Tunis and, for several months, in Toulouse in France, where full face veils are banned.
Along with her mother, who went with her to Syria, Ali joined IS after being won over by one of its propaganda videos. She said she had been disowned by her brother who serves in the French army, which belongs to the coalition backing the SDF.
The gradual defeat of the militant group’s “caliphate” has rescued millions of people from draconian laws, harsh punishments and, for minorities, slaughter or sexual slavery.
Ali said she would meet at the camp with her mother, who had already quit Baghouz. “God will fix things for me,” she said.
Writing By Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Ola Shawki in Cairo; Editing by Helen Popper