The city freed from Isil after two years of hell
Joyful citizens emerge to burn burqas and breathe freely as Islamic terror group flees, writes Josie Ensor
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
Women tore off their long black burqas and defiantly smoked cigarettes, while the men cut their beards as they gave the peace sign.
After two years living under Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the residents of the northern Syrian city of Manbij could not quite believe it when US-backed forces arrived to rescue them.
"Why did you take so long?" sobbed one woman, who had been trapped in her basement for a week, along with her two daughters and elderly father, after Isil threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared the city fully liberated, saying they were "starting a new history after closing the book of darkness".
The battle, which has displaced nearly 100,000 civilians and left more than 400 dead, proved to be the fiercest of all the offensives to dismantle the group's self-proclaimed caliphate across Syria and Iraq.
The operation to liberate the city, launched in late May and supported by coalition air strikes and US Special Forces, was significantly slowed by the jihadists' use of civilians as human shields, forcing troops to clear the city house-by-house.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria's five-year-old conflict, said around 500 cars left Manbij on Friday using civilians as human shields, heading north-east towards Jarablus, a town under Isil control.
Some 25 miles from the Turkish border, Manbij had been a hub for the smuggling of weapons and foreign recruits from Europe to Isil. It had such a large number of British fighters, it earned the nickname 'Little London'.
The battle to liberate Manbij did not just pit Syrian against Syrian, but Briton against Briton.
Among those on the frontline with the SDF was Macer Gifford, a 29-year-old former currency trader from Oxfordshire.
"I wanted to join the fight against Isil in Manbij in particular because of the connection it has with Britain," said Gifford, a public school-educated former Conservative councillor who had no previous military experience, apart from a few days' training with the Territorial Army.
"I wanted to confront those people who were brought up in the West and given every chance to succeed, but who instead chose to come to Syria to brutalise and terrorise the innocent people here," he said.
Mr Gifford, who uses a pseudonym to protect his family, joined a unit of 40 soldiers which included a number of other Westerners.
"It was like nothing I've experienced before," Mr Gifford said, who has fought with the Kurdish army in other battles in northern Syria.
"There was constant gunfire and shelling, and I mean 24/7, night and day. You couldn't travel more than 10 yards without a sniper trying to take a shot at you.
"Unlike their other strongholds, in Manbij they did not run away. They've had years to prepare for this fight and they stockpiled massive amounts of weapons and rounds."
Pictures from newly liberated Manbij showed a bleak landscape of flattened buildings and bombed-out roads with black Isil flags still fluttering from flagpoles.
"It was hell on earth," said Mr Gifford. "It was unbearably hot at around 50 degrees, sometimes we didn't get to sleep or eat for 24 hours, and there's the constant smell of rotting bodies out on the street."
He said Isil fighters wore civilian clothes, making it hard to distinguish them from non-combatants.
"We saw one man going into a house, where we were sure he was laying IEDs, but we weren't 100pc. Unlike Isil, the SDF has rules of conduct, so I didn't shoot," he said.
"Particularly as a foreigner in someone else's war, you don't want to be responsible for accidentally killing a civilian."
He saw the use of young children as spotters, as well as female snipers. It is very rare for Isil to deploy women in battle, and suggests there were struggling for manpower. According to local reports as many as 4,000 fighters were killed.
"They don't care who they shoot, whether it's children, women or the elderly," Mr Gifford added. "There was one suicide bomber who blew himself up in the middle of a crowd of young families just to stop them leaving the city."
Mr Gifford, who has now completed three tours with the Kurds, decided whether or not to tell his family he is heading out to Syria by weighing up his chance of death or serious injury. This time around, he told them.
"In previous offensives, I worked out that the statistic was roughly one in 10 foreign fighters being killed or badly hurt," he said. "This one is so fierce it is more like five or six in 10."
After the death last week of 22-year-old Dean Carl Evans, from Reading, who was shot by a sniper, Mr Gifford believes he is now the last Briton fighting Isil.
He came very close to death himself on his final day in the city on Thursday, when he was caught in open view of Isil. He managed to lob an explosive at them and slip away.
Mr Gifford said almost all the fighters they encountered were foreigners, who had been ruling over the city's residents with a perverted interpretation of sharia law.
Abu Khadija, who was living in Manbij until his neighbourhood was liberated three weeks ago, said he thought dozens of British fighters had remained in the city to fight.
"Many of the foreigners were the ones made to stay behind, Isil uses them for their suicide missions," he said. "Lots more were brought in from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as well, as this is very important territory for them."
It was difficult to know the nationality of those killed, Mr Gifford said, as fighters had burned their passports.
"Much of the paperwork in their headquarters was in French - how women should dress, how fighters should treat their sex slaves," he said. "It was clear these westerners had all left their comfortable lives and taken up residence in these opulent buildings, oppressing the people who lived there."
Reports that made it out during Isil's two-year hold on the city revealed regular beheadings in the public square and people being jailed for crimes as minor as smoking, listening to music or not wearing the burqa.
After spending seven months on the battlefield Mr Gifford earned his annual leave last week. To get out of the country, he had to sneak across the Syrian border into Iraq, risking arrest if caught by Kurdish authorities that disapprove of foreigners joining the war.
He is now in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and is hoping he will be free to return to the UK.
Western nations have warned their citizens against travel to Syria and Iraq and joining the fight against Isil, saying that they may face criminal charges on returning home.
Despite the warnings, hundreds from North America and Europe have made their way to join Kurdish forces.