Her face covered by a black veil, with just a slit for her eyes, Dura looks like dozens of other black-clad women clustered on blankets with their children, all former subjects of ISIS’s crumbling caliphate in Syria.
But this woman is a long, long way from home.
When I address her in Arabic, she replies in English with a distinctly North American accent. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Arabic very well,” she says.
On this nondescript patch of ground on the vast plains of eastern Syria, hundreds of people from all around the world are being identified, questioned, sometimes detained. More arrive every day, as they flee ISIS’s last enclave, the besieged town of Baghouz Al-Fawqani.
I spoke to people from Canada, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Syria, as coalition warplanes roared overhead looking for targets. With the exception of Dura and a fellow Canadian woman, nearly everyone denied any connection with ISIS. Each had ended up in this desolate corner of Syria by sheer chance, they said.
Dura Ahmed, 28, is originally from Toronto, Canada. She arrived here like the others on the back of a pickup truck driven by fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
I switch into English. “How did you end up in Syria?”
“My husband came here first in 2012,” she says. “He tried to convince me for two years to come, but I said no, no, I don’t want to. Then finally he said you have to come, but I was studying.”
I ask her what she was studying.
“English and Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t know anything about ISIS or anything. He said just come and see. Come and see.”
“You were studying the Middle East and didn’t know anything about ISIS?” I asked, puzzled.
“I didn’t really watch the news. No one liked to talk about it. I was really oblivious to what was going on. In the end I said fine, if I don’t like it, I’ll come back,” she said.
So to Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital, she came in 2014. What she saw, she liked. “It was an easy life. It was a city. It was stable,” she said. “You’re there and you’re eating Pringles and Twix bars. You’re just there. You don’t feel like you’re in a war.”
“But hadn’t you heard all the stories of people having their heads cut off, of mass executions?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, and then adds, as if talking about the weather: “Briefly, just briefly, I heard about some executions taking place.”
“Did you hear about the slaughter of Yezidis, of Yezidi women being enslaved?” I asked.
“When I came here, I heard. I haven’t seen one, but…” Her answer trailed off with a nervous laugh. “Well, having slaves is part of Sharia,” she finally ventured. “I believe in Sharia, wherever Sharia is. We must follow whoever is implementing the way, the law.”
Did she regret coming to Syria, I asked, wondering if she felt disillusioned with the Islamic State, after years of being forced back by a US-led coalition, moving from place to place, and ultimately ending up in a “caliphate” of just 1.5 square miles under frequent airstrike.
“No. I had my kids here,” she replied. Her two young boys, Mohammed and Mahmoud, were at her feet. Their faces and clothing were caked with dust, their noses running. The younger one, Mahmoud, had no shoes.