As Hillary Clinton famously borrowed an African saying as her book title – no, not “What happened?” – it takes a village to raise a child. Conversely, sometimes you raze a village to take a child:
Defeated but unrepentant, some jihadists limping out of their besieged final bastion in eastern Syria still praise the Islamic State and promise bloody vengeance against its enemies.
The skeletal and dishevelled figures shuffling out of the smouldering ashes of the “caliphate” may look like a procession of zombies, but their devotion seems intact.
At an outpost for US-backed forces outside the besieged village of Baghouz, 10 women stand in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky in a gesture used by IS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God.
They shout in unison: “The Islamic State is here to stay!”
Most refuse to disclose their names or nationalities.
Indistinguishable under their identical black robes, a group of women arriving at the screening point manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces swarm around reporters like hornets.
Some throw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, while one screams at a photographer and calls him a pig.
Another grabs the uncovered hair of a female reporter, saying: “Have you not read the Koran, are you not ashamed?”
A third woman snarks at the way the reporter is dressed: “God curses women who resemble men”.
The SDF are closing in on diehard jihadists and their relatives holed up in a makeshift encampment inside the village of Baghouz.
More than 7,000 people have fled the bombed-out bastion over the past three days, escaping shelling by the SDF and air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS.
The question is: why?
Why are the “defeated but unrepentant” jihadis allowed to limp out? In any good movie, a “procession of zombies” gets mowed down with a heavy machine gun fire or some high explosives. Failing that, I do hope that those who are besieging and shelling Baghouz are detaining the escapees and not letting them simply walk out to regroup somewhere else, including in their home countries. Sure, there are screenings, but I hope they’re good enough. Which brings us to another point:
As the so-called caliphate crumbles, many Western countries have struggled to decide what to do with its citizens returning from the fighting.
In Britain, the authorities have been dragged into legal wrangling and soul-searching over the fate of jihadi bride, Shamima Begum, and her newborn son.
Despite begging to be allowed to return to Britain after fleeing to Syria from Bethnal Green, east London, aged 15 in 2015, she was stripped of her citizenship last month by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Donald Trump waded into the debate when he urged European countries to take back their suspected fighters and try them in their own countries, threatening via Twitter that US-backed forces in Syria would release the militants into Europe.
The Kurds also want foreign nations to repatriate their citizens and jail them in their lands, but are willing to make compromises if the international community will provide the funding and security for new prisons.
Last month Iraq announced a group of 13 French citizens accused of fighting for ISIS are to be tried in the country rather than face charges in their home country.
And the Kurdish government in Syria said if Britain and other European countries will not take back their jihadi citizens, then international tribunals, similar to the Nuremberg trials used to convict Nazi’s after the Second World War, could be set up to deal with the problem.
I have no objection to Western citizens being tried and imprisoned in Iraq (or Syria) – after all, that’s where their crimes were committed – instead of receiving a slap on the writs back home or at most a short stint in relatively comfy jails (relatively to the Iraqi and Syrian ones). I think everyone can chip in for some funds for the Kurds.
Nearly every day, hundreds of men and women have straggled out of Baghouz, many visibly traumatized. Some were on crutches, in ambulances or on wheelchairs. Babies and children cried for food. Women, juggling babies on each arm, pulled duffel bags or plastic sacks with a few belongings. Some had lost children or husbands. Some brought out bags of IS-created copper and silver coins, clearly hoping to be able to use the caliphate currency one day.
They had been on the move for months, running to stay in IS’s crumbling territory as the SDF chased the group from its de facto capital of Raqqa down the Euphrates to Baghouz.
Zero sympathy. You all made your beds, now you can lie in your medieval savagery. Baghouz is like Berlin in 1945. The difference is that, sadly, the jihadi madness will not die in its ashes like Nazism did in Berlin’s.
Surrendeing ISIS men tell me, they were just cooks, cleaners and bottlewashers. I said “with so many cooks you must have had great food.” Got No laughs. pic.twitter.com/kecsaZ3L9Y
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) March 8, 2019