Syria: Umra Abbas Ammour, 60, dreamt of safety as she and her family fled jihadists in eastern Syria, but hours after reaching US-backed forces her son, daughter and granddaughter were all dead.
In recent weeks, thousands have escaped the last pocket of land held by the Islamic State group near the Iraqi border, seeking refuge in territory held by US-backed forces.
“We try to escape death then, when we go out, we find death in front of us,” said Ammour, who hails from the Iraqi province of Anbar.
Ammour is just one of several to say they were hit while attempting to flee into areas controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The victims, mostly wounded by a bombardment more than one week ago, say they could not identify the source of the fire.
“We were carrying our belongings and on our way when a mortar round hit. My son died on the spot,” said Ammour, a gold earing visible below her black headscarf.
Her daughter was wounded by shrapnel, she said.
In SDF-held territory, the grandmother sits behind a truck feeding her two-year-old grandson, after the death of his 40-year-old father Zuheir.
Inside the vehicle, her daughter too lies dead, having received no medical treatment.
Israa, 24, died just hours after the family arrived at an SDF checkpoint.
“Many have died. No one weeps for the dead anymore,” Ammour said, before tears started rolling down her cheeks.
SDF fighters buried her daughter’s corpse in a nearby plot, where four other civilians who died escaping IS are also laid to rest.
Within hours, Ammour’s granddaughter also died, from a wound to the stomach.
– ‘Is he critical?’ –
After weeks of advancing steadily, the SDF halted their ground assault on IS’s tiny remaining enclave last week, saying the jihadists were increasingly using civilians as human shields.
But artillery fire by the SDF and air strikes by the US-led coalition continue to target the jihadists.
On the dusty ground, six-year-old Mohammed shivers and groans, an IV tube attached to his arm and a white bandage wrapped around his head.
“Hammoudi! Hammoudi!” his mother Amani yells, using a nickname for her son, tears flowing down her black face veil.
“Is his condition critical?” she asks a medic trying to keep him awake.
She and her five children first tried to leave IS territory last week, fleeing intense shelling, as well as food and medicine shortages.
But the family was hit by a mortar round as they crossed. Four of her children were lightly wounded, but Mohammed sustained critical injuries to his head.
They were forced to return to IS-held areas without medical treatment, before finally escaping on Sunday.
“Someone drove me to a particular point and then I carried Mohammed in my arms” to the SDF checkpoint, she said.
A humanitarian service that sends medical teams into conflict zones, The Free Burma Rangers, transported him to a hospital.
More than 36,000 people, mostly women and children from jihadist families, have fled IS territory since the SDF and its coalition supporters intensified their offensive against the jihadists in December, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
They also include some 3,200 jihadists, the Britain-based war monitor says.
-‘Outside this world’-
At a gathering point for those who have fled, SDF forces separate men suspected of being jihadists from the civilians.
The women sit on the floor, waiting to be transported to the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria.
They open relief packages distributed by SDF fighters and feed their children.
Some ask for nappies for their infants, while others ask when they will leave after spending a night in the cold desert.
Iman Aswad, 20, places one of her toddlers on her lap and feeds him. She sits beside her crutches, her leg, which was injured by mortar fire, extended across the floor.
“There is nothing there. No medicine, no treatment and not even hospitals,” she said, referring to IS-held areas.
Amal al-Soussah, the 20-year-old widow of a Lebanese IS sniper, says conditions in IS-held areas are deplorable.
“People are living on the streets. Those who are hit by shells stay on the ground until they bleed out and die,” she said.
Safaa Hamdou, a 24-year-old woman from then countryside outside Syria’s second city Aleppo, also rests her wounded legs.
“Ten days ago, IS fired at us as we were trying to escape,” she said. “One bullet punctured my leg but did not hit the bone, while another broke the bone in my other leg.”
Safaa, a mother of two, asks what the date is.
“I’m exhausted. I feel like I’m outside this world,” she said.