Celebrations as battle for IS holdout wraps up
BAGHOUZ - Their battle against the last jihadists holding out in the besieged Syrian village of Baghouz hasn't quite ended but Kurdish-led fighters have already started celebrating.
When they returned from the front on Tuesday, they put the lamb skewers on the grill and broke into dance as the radio of their battered truck sputtered a Kurdish tune.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) delivered the killer blow to the last vestige of the Islamic State group's "caliphate" this week and the end of the bruising six-month-old operation is now within touching distance.
With backing from the US-led coalition's warplanes, they forced holdout jihadists from their main encampment and into a few hectares (couple of acres) of farmland by the Euphrates River.
The prospect of an imminent victory announcement combined with early leave for the Kurds' Nowruz New Year holiday drew dozens of smiling fighters to a base on the edge of Baghouz.
The front porch of a plush villa the SDF turned into a temporary military headquarters is littered with the duffle bags, ammo belts and body armour the fighters discarded to join the impromptu party.
One fighter remained on the roof, on barbecue duty, while the others formed a circle to start a "dabke" folk dance.
"It's a day of celebration, the nightmare is over," said Majid Hejjo, a 23-year-old SDF fighter still wearing his fatigues and a khaki cap.
The young Kurdish soldier is originally from the northeastern province of Hasakeh but is stationed in Raqa, the former jihadist "capital" which the SDF seized in 2017.
Since December, he has been regularly mobilised on two-week fighting missions to help wipe out the very last remnants of a jihadist proto-state that once covered territory larger than Britain.
Now the young man wants to hang up his rocket-propelled grenade launcher and return to his pregnant wife.
"We're doubly happy. We're going to see our families and we have vanquished IS," he said.
Next to him, his younger half-brother Mohannad is checking he hasn't forgotten anything as he stuffs his belongings into his green wheeled suitcase, including the yellow tea mug he takes everywhere.
An unknown number of diehard jihadists are still refusing to surrender and dodging SDF fire in their hideouts along the reedy banks of the Euphrates.
Syrian and Iraqi government forces and their allies are deployed on the other side of the river and the border, making any escape impossible.
Although IS has already started regrouping in some of its desert and mountain hideouts in the region, the fall of Baghouz will mark the end of the group's territorial control.
His backpack already thrown over his shoulder, Mohammed Hallush doesn't plan to stay to witness the historic announcement and is heading back to his family in Hasakeh.
"I've been here 11 days, the battle is over, the war is over," said the lanky 24-year-old with grey woolly hat and short trimmed beard.
"This leave will not be like the previous ones. This time we're returning home from Baghouz."