Dozens of black veils dotted a freshly laid sand berm in northern Syria, ditched by women fleeing the Islamic State group’s bastion of Raqa as US-backed fighters close in.
Outside the village of Tishreen Farms, 17 kilometres (10 miles) north of Raqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces could be seen laying sandbags to protect themselves from IS car bombs and snipers.
With air support from the US-led coalition, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has seized swathes of territory from the jihadists, who were stationed less than a kilometre away.
SDF fighters told AFP that women hastily shed their IS-mandated black veils after crossing into SDF territory near Tishreen Farms, revealing vibrant, patterned robes underneath.
“Most of the women tear off their robes and burqas as soon as they arrive at our positions,” an SDF fighter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Some of the women stomp on the robes because they finally feel safe and are finished with Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Thousands of civilians have been smuggled out of Raqa and surrounding territory in recent weeks.
Ahmad, who fled Raqa to a village near Tishreen Farms, told AFP that he was one of the lucky ones.
He managed to escape despite IS’s brutal measures to block residents from leaving.
“IS is using the civilians as human shields to protect itself,” said the man in his 30s.
“We fled as part of a group two days ago, and an IS sniper shot and killed two of us.”