Civilians fleeing the Islamic State group’s Syrian bastion of Raqa are paying smugglers to lead them out of the city safely, only to find themselves caught up in harrowing attacks.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Raqa and the surrounding province since the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began an offensive to capture the jihadist stronghold last year.
But the journey is perilous, with IS preventing civilians from abandoning its shrinking territory and enforcing its ban with deadly violence.
In the Ain Issa camp, where thousands of people displaced from Raqa have sought refuge, many civilians say 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 kilometres (nearly four miles) northwest of Raqa, 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 Daesh gunfire,” Ali said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
He gunned his car engine and managed to reach a nearby 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 Kurdish and Arab fighters of the SDF entered Raqa in June and have since captured more than 40 percent of the city from IS.
But the UN estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside in dire conditions.
The UN says civilians are paying between 75,000 and 150,000 Syrian pounds (USD 150-USD 300) per person to smugglers to organise their escape.
When Ahmed al-Hussein, 35, decided to flee Raqa, 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.