Manbij is the second-largest city in Aleppo province, one that fell to the Islamic State in 2014.
Manbij became the first destination for many foreign fighters seeking to join the group. Located in north Aleppo, it is a way-station on IS supply lines heading east to Raqqa province.
As soon as IS expelled all its rivals and took full control of Manbij in late 2014, their fighters began “pressuring the population to pledge their allegiance,” says former resident Abu Ismail.
Abu Ismail says he refused to take the pledge. “IS’s entrance into the city turned me into a shut-in,” he said.
When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched its late-May offensive in the Manbij countryside, life in the city was further disrupted by prices hikes, food scarcity and electric blackouts. The Kurdish-led SDF, residents feared, were closing in.
Tens of thousand of civilians fled to the countryside and nearby cities as the SDF slowly encircled Manbij. Abu Ismail stayed until June 21, when he fled with his wife and four children.
Internally displaced Syrians on a journey through Idlib province. Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Barbour.
By the time Abu Ismail and his family left, the journey out was dangerous and expensive.
“The way was full of mines,” Abu Ismail tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.
“Without a smuggler leading us, the journey would have been impossible.”
Q: What led you to flee Manbij? What was the state of the city before you left?
The Islamic State was in control of the city. As soon they entered they began pressuring the population to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State and its Caliph, al-Baghdadi. At the time, I didn’t want anything to do with Syria’s war. I still feel this way.
IS’s entrance into Manbij transformed me into a shut-in.
By the time I fled Manbij, Kurdish forces had besieged the city. The siege drove prices to unbearable levels. The strain was exacerbated by the electricity cuts that began with the Kurdish offensive on Manbij. As the battle around Manbij continued, food became scarce.
Despite all of these hardships, IS forbade anyone from leaving and accused those who attempted to leave with apostasy. An accusation of apostasy is a death sentence.
I was also unemployed at this time.
Our lives had deteriorated. I was scared for my family and afraid of IS. Life in Manbij became so unbearable I decided we needed to leave and find safety. I began communicating with people in a city called a-Rai [45km west of Manbij on the Turkish border under FSA control]. The people I spoke with mentioned the name of a trusted smuggler who could take us out of Manbij and to Azaz [80km east of Manbij in north Aleppo], a city under FSA control.
I spoke with my family and close relatives about leaving and left soon after. We left our house and all our possessions behind. I decided against selling anything out of the fear that IS security forces would see this as an indication of our plans.
Q: What happened after you left Manbij?
The smuggler guided us on a route out of the city. My wife, children and I walked 20 hours to Azaz. Between Manbij and Azaz the way was full of mines. Without a smuggler leading us, the journey would have been impossible. We paid the smuggler $250 to lead us to Azaz.
Half a kilometer outside Azaz the smuggler left us. Soon after he disappeared, a group of men approached us and accused me of being associated with IS. While they beat me, they searched every member of my family. At the time, I was carrying 35,000SP. By the time they left us, they had stolen 16,000SP from me. After this incident I was forced to borrow money to continue the journey to Afrin city [Afrin lies 94km west of Manbij and is controlled by Kurdish forces] and eventually to Idlib province.
We passed through three statelets, the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army’s state and the Kurdish state. Of those, the Kurdish state was the only one where we weren’t subjected to any harm or humiliation.
Q: What was the most dangerous element of your journey?
There wasn’t a moment of safety. From the minute we left Manbij to our arrival, the entire journey was filled with danger.
Our fate was uncertain. I was sure IS would discover our plan. We escaped to FSA territory only to be beaten and humiliated. Even now, given that we came from IS territory, I live in fear that I will be accused of having joined IS.
Q: Now that you have arrived in north Idlib province, where do you plan on staying?
After we arrived in Sarmada, [a rebel-held town near the Turkish border] in Idlib province, we found out housing costs and the cost of living were astronomical. Since arriving to the city, we have been living in the street. There is nowhere to go other than Turkey. There are many others in the area in the same position.