Life in Syria's Baghouz a Year After the Fall of Last ISIS Flag

Farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim stands in his damaged fields in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz | AFP
Farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim stands in his damaged fields in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz | AFP
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Life in Syria's Baghouz a Year After the Fall of Last ISIS Flag

Farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim stands in his damaged fields in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz | AFP
Farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim stands in his damaged fields in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz | AFP

A year after the last black flag of the ISIS group was lowered in the Syrian village of Baghouz, local farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim is trying to restore his damaged land.

But traces of the militant group are still all around him in this small and remote village near the Iraqi border, where Kurdish fighters and the US-led coalition declared the IS proto-state defeated in March 2019 after a blistering months-long assault.

At the foot of a craggy hill, 75-year-old Ibrahim spots discarded explosives belts and tattered military vests crumpled in the dust.

Nearby, an empty bullet casing rusts and the mangled remains of charred vehicles dot the fields.

"We are fixing the wreckage so we can sow this land with wheat for bread," says the man who heads an extended family of 75 people, AFP reported.

"We want to revive this plot and plant crops we can eat," he adds.

The farmer returned to Baghouz a few months ago, having fled to other parts of Deir Ezzor province and later to the northern province of Raqqa as the fight against ISIS raged.

In a battered encampment on the edge of the village, once crammed with thousands of ISIS militants and their relatives, Ibrahim's family now works to clean up the detritus of war.

They have found landmines planted where Ibrahim hopes his wheat crops will grow and, on some occasions, weapons buried beneath the ground.

"When we came back and saw what had happened to our land, my son was going to go mad. I was scared he was going to have a stroke," Ibrahim says.

"This wreckage feels like a wound in my body."

- ISIS guerrilla -

The churned-up wasteland Ibrahim must now tend to is all that remains of the cross-border proto-state that the extremist group declared in 2014 across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

At its height, the group inflicted its brutal interpretation of religion on some seven million people and launched deadly attacks against the West.

While the so-called caliphate is now dead, fears of attacks by ISIS remnants are still very much alive among residents and Kurdish-led security forces.

At the entrance to Baghouz, fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces verify identity papers and conduct foot patrols at strategic points.

A spokesman for the Deir Ezzor Military Council, a body affiliated with the SDF, says Baghouz is secure, but ISIS cells "continue to operate in nearby villages such as al-Shaafa and al-Sousa."

Despite the defeat in Baghouz, IS has maintained a presence in SDF-held areas, where it claims near-daily attacks.

The Kurdish-led fighters and their coalition allies have since last year been on the hunt for such jihadist remnants.

In October, a US raid in northern Syria killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before the group announced his successor as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.

But Baghdadi's killing has only spurred more sleeper cells into action, says the spokesman for the Deir Ezzor Military Council, who asked to be identified as Haroun.

"ISIS is seeking revenge," he tells AFP.

- 'Living in hell' -

Despite the looming threat of attacks, half of Baghouz's residents have returned in recent months, bringing a semblance of normal life with them.

In the main market, women clad from head to toe in black stroll along the street, ISIS insignia still painted on surrounding walls.

Vendors sell fruit and vegetables from small roadside carts beneath listing balconies.

Many war-battered apartment blocks are abandoned, while those inhabited lack running water and electricity.

Amid the devastation, an outbreak of leishmaniasis -- a skin disease caused by a microscopic parasite spread by sandflies -- has gripped the village.

The illness is endemic in Syria but has become more prevalent during the nine-year civil war, especially in areas rocked in recent years by clashes to expel ISIS militants.

Baking flatbread on a rudimentary stove, Faten al-Hassan says the outbreak of the disfiguring disease in Baghouz is significant.

"All my kids have leishmaniasis, and it's not just them. Most residents suffer from this illness too," AFP quoted the 37-year-old as saying.

But at least, "we are living inside our home, and for now, this is enough," she adds.

Nearby, Hashem Raafat, 20, is not as lucky.

Living in a tent near his bombed-out house, he says: "Public services are non-existent, houses are destroyed, and many have died because of landmines while we don't have a single hospital."

"We are living in hell."



For Iran’s Youth, Legacy of 2022 Clashes Shapes Presidential Race 

People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
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For Iran’s Youth, Legacy of 2022 Clashes Shapes Presidential Race 

People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)

Atousa joined angry protests against Iran's rulers in 2022 that loyalists like Reza helped crush. Two years on, the two young Iranians' political views remain at odds, reflecting a rift that will shape the outcome of presidential elections this week.

Now 22, Atousa says she will abstain from voting in Friday's ballot to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi after his death in a helicopter crash, regarding the exercise with derision. But Reza, 26, a religiously devout member of the hardline Basij militia, intends to vote, a contrasting view of the worth of the election that underscores the division in Iran.

All six candidates - five hardliners and a low-key moderate approved by a hardline watchdog body - have been wooing youthful voters in speeches and campaign messages, using social media to reach the 60% of the 85 million population aged under 30.

"This election, like all elections in Iran, is a circus. Why should I vote when I want the regime to be toppled?" Atousa told Reuters. She declined to be identified by her full name for security reasons.

"Even if it was a free and fair election and if all candidates could enter the race, the president in Iran has no power," she said.

The hashtag #ElectionCircus has been widely posted on social media platform X by Iranians in the past few weeks, while some Iranians at home and abroad have called for an election boycott.

Under Iran's clerical system, the elected president runs the government day-to-day but his powers are circumscribed by those of the hardline supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on top issues such as nuclear and foreign policy.

'RELIGIOUS DUTY TO VOTE'

Like many women and young Iranians, Atousa joined protests in 2022 sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran's mandatory religious dress code.

The unrest spiraled into the biggest show of opposition to Iran's clerical rulers in years.

Atousa, then a student, was arrested during the protests and her dream of becoming an architect was shattered when she was expelled from university as a punishment for participating in the demonstrations.

The Basij, a plain-clothes arm of the elite Revolutionary Guards, deployed alongside uniformed security during the 2022 unrest and helped suppress demonstrations with deadly force.

Over 500 people including 71 minors were killed in the protests, hundreds injured and thousands arrested in unrest that was eventually crushed by security forces, rights groups said.

Iran carried out seven executions linked to the unrest. Authorities have not given any official estimated death toll, but said dozens of security forces were killed in "riots".

"I will sacrifice my life for the leader and the Islamic Republic. It is my religious duty to vote. My participation will strengthen the Nezam (system)," said Reza, from the low-income Nazi Abad district in south Tehran.

Reza said he will support a hardline candidate who champions Khamenei's "resistance economy", a phrase meaning economic self-sufficiency, strengthening trade ties with regional neighbors and improving economic interaction with China and Russia.

The economy is beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions reimposed since 2018 after the US ditched Tehran's 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers.

Reza and Atousa, both born after the 1979 revolution, have regrets about the 2022 demonstrations, albeit for different reasons.

Reza blames the protests for bringing mounting pressure on Iran from Western countries, which imposed sanctions on Iranian security forces and officials for alleged human rights abuses. Iran accused Western powers of fomenting the unrest.

"I wish the protests had not taken place ... our enemies used it as a pretext to mount pressure on our country," he said.

Atousa looks back on that period with sadness.

"I was hopeful," she said. "I thought finally the change will come and I will be able to live a life with no suppression in a free country ... I paid a heavy price, but the regime is still here."