This is Al-Hawl, a sprawling desert camp designed to house a mere 10,000 Iraqi refugees. It is now home to approximately 76,000 people, most of whom fled Isis’s last enclave, Baghouz, an encampment littered with broken cars and sinking tents.
Local authorities are overwhelmed by the unfathomable exodus. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were off by tens of thousands in their predictions of the remaining civilians inside Baghouz. Non-governmental organisations now say they are integrating resources and that the situation is ‘slowly improving’.
One NGO employee said: ‘At the start we were just responding. No one expected this, we had a lot of severely malnourished children arriving to the gates and some people were wounded from the fighting. It was chaos.’
International agencies are seeking to provide support for the wives and children of men who may have been Isis fighters.
‘It’s tough,’ the NGO employee explained. ‘We provide aid to everyone but this is obviously a very complicated situation.’
In the section of the camp allocated to foreign women, thousands of Isis wives and their children from across the globe are a headache for both the SDF and NGOs trying to provide services.
‘Many of the mothers don’t speak Arabic or English so the kids are translating and they’re just kids, so it’s difficult. Many of them don’t trust services or think we are infidels, so they don’t engage,’ a source said.
Security concerns inside the foreign women’s section have also delayed access. The foreign women are more radical than the Iraqis and Syrians are, and they have previously rioted, attacked journalists and burned down the tents of women they see as betraying the ‘caliphate’.
‘The tents can go on fire in a second,’ one woman with a British accent said. ‘People are very worried about what will happen if they speak to the media.’
Women crowd around the gates shouting at the guards to let them go to the nearby souk (market) to buy supplies. ‘We can’t let them out,’ one guard explained. ‘We don’t know what they’ll try to bring back in.’
Many of the women are vehemently pro-Isis and wave their index finger – a symbol of Isis obedience – at visitors.
Kurdish women casually smoke cigarettes as little children glare at them. ‘Haram’ (forbidden), one Kurdish camp worker wearily explains pointing to her cigarette. ‘They hate me but you need to be careful. They hate you more. They’ll throw stones and pull your hair.’