Civilians fleeing ISIS’ Syrian bastion of Raqqa are paying smugglers to lead them out of the city safely, only to find themselves caught up in harrowing attacks.
In the Ain Issa camp, where thousands of people displaced from Raqqa have sought refuge, many civilians told Agence France Presse they were promised safe passage by smugglers who ended up leading them into deadly situations.
Ali, 25, asked around in his village of Qahtaniya, about six kilometers northwest of Raqqa, to find a smuggler.
“The smugglers don’t reveal their real names, they use false ones. Ours called himself ‘Al-Hout’ (The Whale),” he told AFP.
“I agreed with The Whale on the details and I paid him 222,000 Syrian pounds ($418),” he said, an amount that covered him and eight family members, the youngest of them a five-year-old child.
On the night of their escape, they left the village in Ali’s car at 2:00 am and headed for a rendezvous point where the smuggler and other fleeing civilians were waiting.
The smuggler moved ahead of the group and then brought them to a halt.
“We arrived at a place that he told us was safe, and then we came under a barrage of ISIS gunfire,” Ali said.
He gunned his car engine and managed to reach a nearby Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) checkpoint safely, but a woman who had joined them at the meeting point was wounded in the attack.
“We don’t know what happened to her, but the blood of those (who have died fleeing) is on the hands of the smugglers,” he said.
The UN says civilians are paying between 75,000 and 150,000 Syrian pounds ($150-$300) per person to smugglers to organize their escape.
When Ahmed al-Hussein, 35, decided to flee Raqqa, he agreed to pay a smuggler 70,000 Syrian pounds and hand over his motorbike, worth another 30,000 Syrian pounds, when he reached safety.
“We were a group of 250 people. We were moving for 15 hours until we reached an SDF checkpoint in the Al-Mazeila area, 23 kilometers northwest of Raqqa, at the break of dawn,” he told AFP.
“As soon as we arrived, the militants launched an attack on the area, and we were caught in the crossfire. The smugglers disappeared completely.”
ISIS captured him and other civilians and took them to the village of Al-Salihiya, where they beat them and stole their money and identity papers.
They also interrogated the civilians, trying to learn who had smuggled them out.
“It was impossible because we really had no idea. The smugglers could have been ISIS themselves,” he said.
Hussein was eventually released, and moved to another ISIS-held village, remaining there until it was captured by the SDF several months ago.
Throughout the ordeal he managed to hang onto his motorbike, which sat next to him in his tent.
All of those interviewed by AFP about their experiences fleeing Raqqa with smugglers declined to be interviewed on camera, citing fears not only of the smugglers but also of ISIS.