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With The Collapse Of The ISIS 'Caliphate,' A Camera Lens Lingers On Those Left Behind

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Women and children evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants wait to be screened by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, on Feb. 27.
Felipe Dana, AP

Women and children evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants wait to be screened by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, on Feb. 27.

Felipe Dana has spent more than two years photographing the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but he says he's shot his most compelling work in just the past several weeks.

Along the desert terrain of southeast Syria, Dana, a photojournalist for the Associated Press, has watched as long lines of civilians filed out of the small town of Baghouz.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group backed by the United States, announced this week that it had captured Baghouz, what's believed to have been the last territory held by Islamic State militants.

"Some days we saw over 4,000 people being evacuated out of this tiny village in Syria," Dana says in an interview with Michel Martin for NPR's All Things Considered. "They didn't expect to have this many people there at all ... They were coming out of tunnels and makeshift tents."

The collapse of ISIS's self-declared caliphate marks a dramatic reversal for the extremist group, which at one point controlled a swath of territory in Syria and Iraq that rivaled the size of Great Britain. That territory included major cities like Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, with combined populations in the millions.

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Dana says what happens next will be pivotal in terms of the future of the area's civilian population — especially for the women and children who are often the subject of his photographs.

"The amount of women and children being evacuated from these areas is insane," he says. "We're talking about tens of thousands of people and they're all being taken to camps."

Many of these civilians were brought to the region by ISIS fighters. As NPR's Larry Kaplow and Mark Katkov reported on Friday:

There are thousands of wives and children of ISIS fighters or people loosely connected to the militants whose fate is undetermined and, in many cases, are being mistreated. A recent Human Rights Watch report says in just one corner of the war — northern Iraq — Kurdish authorities are holding 1,500 children under 18 years old in detention and torturing many.

... About 1,800 women and children from Europe and elsewhere are languishing in detention camps in northeastern Syria. Their countries are hesitant to take them back home because the authorities don't know what to do with them.

... Advocates of those detained say their home countries have a responsibility to take them back and either prosecute them or release them. They also say that letting them languish endlessly in camps just breeds more radicalism.

President Trump has declared victory over the Islamic State in Syria. But on the ground, Dana sees a different reality.

The president's declaration is "mostly symbolic," he says. "I think ISIS lost their territory and this is a very big thing. But it's definitely not over."

While the capture of Baghouz marks the end of the ISIS caliphate, thousands of fighters remain in Syria and Iraq – some 14,000 according to the National Counterterrorism Center, as NPR reported on Friday. Elsewhere, the group's ideology holds power.

As civilians return to liberated territories like Baghouz, Dana is wary of a resurgence. "Although the territory is not controlled by ISIS anymore and there is a presence of SDF forces, these forces on the ground are being attacked by ISIS sleeper cells and or militants there returning," he says.

NPR's Robert Baldwin III produced the audio version of this story.

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