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How Baghuz unfolded: Humanitarian aid, 22,000 people, FBR and the end of ISIS

People fleeing Baghuz (Courtesy Paul Curtis Bradley)

Interview with Paul Curtis Bradley


March 11, 2019

Free Burma Rangers is a humanitarian relief org that specializes in working in conflict zones. FBR has been working in Burma for more than 20 years, Iraq since 2014 and in Syria since their first trip in 2015.

Paul Curtis Bradley, is the team chaplain.

Hi Paul, I’ve been following your work in Syria, how are you?

Busy days. I arrived six days ago [back to Thailand]. Our team was there [in Syria] six and a half weeks in total. I was in Syria approx. 5 weeks.

Everyone is out now.

Tell us about your team and your part in it?

We are made up of westerners and ethnic minority peoples from Burma and a Kurd and an Iraqi. We are a motley crew. I am called the team Swiss army knife, I am the Chaplain, do logistics, security, I do some medical care, first responder stuff, I am one of the team leaders. Dave Eubank is team leader one.

So you were in Syria since January when this whole crises in Baghuz unfolded?

We got there and were there the whole month of February. The height of people leaving Baghuz.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect, we were going at the behest of the SDF to support them in whatever way we could help. We met the spokesman for the SDF and he said “we can really use you in Baghuz, the situation is pretty bad,” we thought we’d stay for a few weeks and move on to other projects. We were told it would be over in only three or four days.

You’ve been in tough places before and key moments like the battle for Mosul, but I’ve never seen anything like this, have you?

We have photos [of how big this crises was]. Here’s what I think happened, the Coalition squeezed ISIS down, they ended up concentrated into Baghuz. I’m guessing the town is three to four times its normal size. There isn’t enough housing for everyone, I have photos of a huge tent city on the Euphrates outside the city, and we thought those were just families trying to get out, displaced people. But I’m now beginning to wonder if this was just overflow because there wasn’t room in the town.

When we got there we asked the IDPs how many were left and some reported 1,000 or 2,000 and one man said 20,000 and we thought that sounded ridiculous but it turns out he was closer to the right number.

In the end our team encountered some 22,000 people providing food, water, diapers, blankets, and medical care.

[Photos from Baghuz: The camp and people leaving Baghuz in a truck (Courtesy Paul Curtis Bradley; Paul Curtis Bradley helps a child (Courtesy Free Burma Rangers]

Describe to me how this unfolded and how you dealt with it?

We always wanted to be as helpful as we could to the SDF. So we prayed everyday that we would be in the right place. We want to be close to the action because that is how we are built, because we fill in the humanitarian gap between the frontlines and the rear. We were on the front with SDF. We slept with them among the units, because that is where the IDPs were initially coming out and crossing at night and we were able to receive those people in the beginning. But as the flow got bigger and they sent trucks into the city, 30-40 at a time, then we moved to where the holding area was and we were going back and forth to these holding areas.

We happened to be at the right place at right time and we had help and cooperation and they paved the way for us to be there and they [the SDF] were great partners. We worked very well with them in a smooth system, where they would offload the people and do an initial check and then truckloads at a time came and they could walk 200 meters to us to get water, food, diapers and then walk back. It was a smooth operation, which we were happy about.

Our medics treated 4,000 patients and our Karen (minority group from Burma) medic even delivered 2 babies.

This was mostly women, or men also?

So we did some men also. In the beginning we treated men a lot, but then there was a deal with the Coalition and people could come out during a five day window and 3-4,000 at a time were coming out and then the men were separated from the women. So then we dealt with the women mostly. But if there were bad wounds like mortars and airstrike wounds then they would bring them over as single men, one at a time. They would bring them over and take them back.

There must have been security concerns, like the women could conceal a suicide vest under their black garment, or a knife?

When the numbers grew, there were rumors that there could be suicide vests. The SDF said they found two suicide vests among the ladies, that was the only thing that we heard. Initially there wasn’t a whole lot of screening, we were helping with some screening when it was smaller number, but when the agreement was made then they would bring them in cattle trucks and then the SDF would offload them and the SDF women would search the ladies and the men would be marched and checked and then sent to the Coalition for biometrics.

Yes, I’ve seen photos of fingerprint scans and such.

We heard they were getting facial recognition and fingerprints.

Reports mention foreigners, what percent do you think were foreign, non-Syrians?

I would have a hard time coming up with a percentage. Of the ladies we saw, probably, maybe 15% were foreigners.

You can tell by the accent?

Some of them we were able to talk to. French girls, Canadians, Russians, a few from the UK, Maldives, Egypt, Bosnia, it’s like the whole world was there. Quite a few spoke of meeting their ISIS husbands online, the classic thing you hear, they met them online and wanted to come, some said their mothers brought them there when they were young and now were on their fourth husband because they kept getting killed. Some were clueless. One French girl and a Canadian, I couldn’t believe what they were saying, they said this is what they wanted, “it wasn’t bad, ISIS doesn’t do bad things.”

I guess for some of these foreigners it was ok because they were at the top of the heap of the ISIS power structure?

Out of the women we talked to, 9 out of 10 who were hard [core ISIS supporters]. But 1 of 10 would say this isn’t what we bargained for and had softness and even admitted making mistakes. One Russian lady said that her husband was still in Baghuz and “I hope he dies there.” Here is what I suspect. This is only the defeat of the physical presence of ISIS, it’s not done yet. This ideology is not finished. 9 out 10, I don’t know what will happen, they have lots and lots of kids, this ideology will continue on, maybe this is part of their strategy to let the wives and children to go and continue on with the ideology after the men martyr themselves. I heard this idea from a couple different people and agree it is possible.

They hope to reconstitute somewhere else?

They are already doing that. Some of the men surrendering were wounded but others not. A small percentage were wounded but some men were healthy.

When we first got there, we heard stories of people paying $1,000 a head to get out. And then one group said they paid $100 each to a guard to escape. But once that ended and the coalition deals started happening we didn’t hear those stories anymore.

I think somehow they switched their strategy. My suspicion is that those who are Syrian and Iraqi have a better chance to blend back in, however there were also some foreigner fighters as well, [were seeking to get out to continue ISIS]

Unlike Mosul they didn’t fight to the death?

I heard Dave Eubank answer this question saying “I’m surprised seeing ISIS guys that are alive, we haven’t seen these guys a lot, in Mosul most we saw were dead.",

What we saw were hundreds, in the end like thousands and who knows what’s going to happen. I don’t know what deals were made but who knows where they will eventually end up.

What I’ve seen your team was smiling and friendly to these ISIS members, how hard was that?

For us our thinking was that we had them for this moment. To show them some kind of love outside of hate, and that really was big for us, I felt like to offer love in a moment that they won’t ever get again, they are going from Baghuz or to an IDP or internment camp, but in between time they meet some people who are giving them food and baby formula and showing them some love and our hope and prayer is that will create a crack of doubt, really. One out of ten showed cracks of doubt. It’s worth it to find those. Jesus says I left the 99 to find the 1.

There was a critical yet understandable comment by a soldier who had seen pictures of us carrying the bags of the IDPs, when we first got there they were walking 7km with their goods and the last bit was a steep hill to our position. They were dehydrated, hungry, and shot up. We treated one small 5 year old who had been shot in the head by ISIS as they fled. We were helping carry their bags, children, and wheelchairs up that part, and some soldier, non-SDF heard about that and asked “how does it feel to be the baggage porters for ISIS.” That’s a critical question and our answer is that love will conquer hate. God moves towards us even when we were his enemy, He gave us His own son in the state, and our response is to show humility and we must humble ourselves and offer love.

For instance, one of our team named Mohammed was shot 6 times [in Mosul] and I looked at him and someone asked how can you serve your enemies, and he was helping ISIS kids and giving love and I felt: Oh my gosh, he was shot 6 times, ISIS is his mortal enemy, and he made it and now here he is offering love in return. That’s supernatural, that’s not worldly, that’s bigger than hate and if he can do that [I can]. I have friends that were killed by ISIS. ISIS would happily have seen me die, and if he can do that and offer love, that’s moving

You look at the girls who say they were duped and stuck and trapped, do you have compassion, or do you say ‘you made a stupid choice and should die’? It’s complicated. Vengeance is not ours to take. Justice yes. God ordains justice. But vengeance is when you add a “rub it in your face” that God warns against. God says we can help with justice, and He loves justice and mercy, but not vengeance and that’s the line in our hearts that’s easy to cross and it takes prayer to figure that out.

How did you have enough supplies?

We had an amazing donor that basically funded 90%. We brought stuff to begin with. An Org called Bring Hope donated all our medicine, and another org gave us somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000. And we hired three truck drivers who drove through the nights moving back and forth, those guys were heroes. We would order bread 5,000 packs at a time and 7,000 cases of water, it was unbelievable, the amount of logistics. We also had to keep moving them to different locations, I lost 10 lbs moving the stuff, doing relief work cross-fit.

It came from Iraq via the border?

We bought our supplies from Qamishli in Syria.

Were there other humanitarian organizations present?

There wasn’t anyone else there. I think because it was difficult to get there. It was a miracle. We faced some opposition when we initially arrived there. There were some elements not happy about us being there citing safety concerns. But the SDF stood their ground and fought for us to stay.

We’ve done 8 trips into Syria. They know us. They hadn’t seen us operate at this scale. Now they trust us a lot. And the other elements that were not happy, warmed to us as well. So things changed. I’ll say that it took a miracle to get there. Even if other orgs wanted to get there I doubt they could get there.

Did you get to see any of the Yazidis who were saved?

We saw a handful of the women and quite a few of the kids. I sat down and had a small dinner with 11 Yazidi boys. Two were from Shaheen’s village, our interpreter who was killed in Mosul. All but one had lost their language. The oldest was 13. Four and a half years they have been gone and who knows what happened to them, I saw on the news that two of them were reunited with family already. That got me and I hugged the two from Shaheen’s village and a lot of grown men were breaking down and crying. So the SDF, the Kurds among them, were extremely happy to see the Yazidis and help recovering them. There is news and rumors that a lot of the [Yazidi[] women were killed. We didn’t see as many Yazidi women. There were more kids than women.

How did they find them among all those IDPs?

In some cases the older Yazidi kids remembered who came from the Sinjar area. The older kid remembered his language, so he would know who is Yazidi and not. The SDF were separating them, they know who is Kurdish. The ladies are wearing the black ninja outfits, but they were still able to tell and separate out foreigners among the women.

So this is how the war ends?

My opinion is that we can’t give up in the fight against this ideology, this hate. I don’t know how soon but it will show its head again. We have to be diligent in keeping an eye on this, there are a lot of sleeper cells. It’s like someone turned a light on in a house of rats and they all run for a dark corner. The main horde is cornered, but there are reports of sleeper cells. They are already carrying out attacks in Manbij and Raqqa and so we know for sure there are small groups.

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