Civilians in the Syrian city of Manbij tell Diyaruna they are desperate to escape the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), which has been using them as human shields as liberating forces advance on the city.
The operation to drive ISIL from the city in eastern Aleppo province has been under way for close to two months, with heavy fighting raging as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Manbij Military Council (MMC) and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) face down the group, backed by coalition aircraft.
Residents say they are under tremendous pressure due to the siege ISIL has imposed on them, telling Diyaruna the group has booby-trapped all entrances to the city and deployed snipers to fire on anyone who tries to escape towards the areas controlled by the SDF and its allies.
"ISIL has exercised the most heinous forms of abuse and oppression against Manbij residents since the start of the military campaign launched by the international coalition forces and the SDF to liberate the city and its rural areas," MMC platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.
Since the fighting began, ISIL has blocked all the city’s exits to prevent residents from leaving and escaping the dangers they face inside, he said.
"It also spread out its elements in all residential areas and turned homes and hospitals into headquarters and hideouts for its elements, after totally vacating its original posts," he added.
Ibrahim said residents were used as human shields, making it impossible to shell or storm ISIL positions without putting civilians at risk of being injured, which delayed the liberation of the city and slowed down military operations.
This has forced the SDF to slow its advance to avoid harming civilians, he said.
"The SDF attempted more than once to strike agreements through tribal leaders in the city, through which ISIL elements would be allowed to withdraw in exchange for safe passage for civilians out of the city," Ibrahim said.
"However, all these attempts failed as they were rejected by the group, which preferred to hold on to the civilians to prolong the duration of the battles," he said.
ISIL targets fleeing residents
To keep civilians from leaving, Ibrahim said, ISIL cordoned off the city and blocked all its main and side streets in order to tighten its control over the population's movements, and is killing anyone one seen trying to escape.
The group also planted hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the fields just outside the city and along escape routes, he added, which injured or killed many city residents as they attempted to flee.
"The SDF are doing all they can to keep an eye out for fleeing civilians to ensure their safety and transport them to safe areas where Kurdish Red Crescent medical teams are on hand to provide medical care," he said.
Several assembly points have been set up, where transportation is provided to larger assembly points and camps, he added, with priority going to the sick, elderly, children and those who have been injured by IEDs or sniper fire.
Dozens of civilians wounded by bullets, shrapnel or mines succeeded in reaching safe areas with the help of other escapees and SDF and MMC fighters, he said, adding that some remain out in the open as it is too dangerous to reach them.
"One of the most emotional incidents involved the death of a mother and survival of her nursing infant daughter," said Ibrahim, adding that the baby was rescued by a woman who was nearby when its mother was killed.
Those who seek to flee ISIL-controlled areas in Manbij for SDF-controlled areas have to cross a distance of at least 10 kilometres, Manbij resident Mustafa al-Hassan told Diyaruna.
The escapes take place mostly at night due to the risk of ISIL sniper fire during the daytime, he said, adding that "the group deployed snipers throughout the city when the military operations began to prevent residents from fleeing".
"I waited three days with my family for the opportune moments to flee, and on the fourth night international coalition aircraft raided the group’s position, so I seized the opportunity to get out of the area," he said.
The family hid several times during the crossing, he said, and were picked up by the SDF about halfway through their journey and transported the remaining distance to safety.
Farmer and Manbij native Othman al-Mustafa, who fled to a village in rural Kobani, told Diyaruna that ISIL collaborators are exploiting the current situation to smuggle civilians out of the ISIL-controlled area.
They charge a fee of $150 per person, he said, adding that the amount is excessive considering that the city’s residents are poor, with most reliant on agriculture and livestock as their main source of income.
Because all work has ceased, he said, those who want to escape with the help of smugglers have to sell their furniture, cars and tractors to gather the fee.
The situation inside the city is "miserable, as food and medical supplies are almost depleted and prices have risen to insanely high levels", he said, noting that the price of bread has risen from 15 Syrian pounds to 400 ($0.06 to $1.86).
Medical care is restricted to ISIL elements for the most part, he said, as many were injured in the recent battles and have been distributed among the city's hospitals and clinics, where they have been bedded among civilian patients.
"With the aim of terrorising civilians, ISIL carried out mass arrest campaigns that netted hundreds of people in the region," al-Mustafa said.
ISIL fighters also carried out executions after some residents attempted to hold marches and demonstrations demanding that they be allowed to leave the city and that the group "keep civilians out of the danger zones", he said.