From his headline-making discovery of the former London schoolgirl in a refugee camp to his photograph of a boy horrifically burnt by Turkish bombs, via reports from inside the prisons holding Isis suspects – this is award-winning Times war correspondent Anthony Loyd's urgent and compelling diary of 2019.
Qamishli, Syria, February 2, 2019
Once a sea, the caliphate is now a pond. I will watch it dry.
On the battlefield at Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, the Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) are on the edge of triumph. Here they have encircled the last concentration of Islamic State fighters, along with thousands of their family members, and are closing the siege to defeat them. At its peak, the caliphate had been the size of England and governed the lives of some seven million people. Now it has been reduced to this fortified rural strongpoint and is down to its last few weeks of existence.
The end of any battle is an optimum moment to retrieve information, to beachcomb the secrets left by the receding tide, and the final denouement of the caliphate at Baghouz will likely end some of the war's great mysteries.
With this in mind, I am back in Syria looking for missing people. Where are Islamic State's western hostages? Where are the Bethnal Green girls?
Crossing the river border into northern Syria from Iraq, in one of the drab grey frontier towns on the road to Qamishli I meet a Kurdish intelligence officer to ask if he can help me find any of those I search for. He gives little away. I leave the names of the Bethnal Green girls on his desk, where a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan – the jailed leader of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party – gazes down upon them, as inscrutable in his expression as the intelligence officer and the goldfish in a tank at the other end of the room.
Before saying farewell I ask the man for permission to visit al-Hawl camp, where 1,300 foreign women and children from Isis families have arrived over the past two months, fleeing the Baghouz battle, in case any of the Bethnal Green girls have arrived there.
I drive on to Qamishli.
Even at the edge of victory the Kurds are preparing for more war. Dropping by the home of a friend in the city our conversation is interrupted by the hum of a generator and drilling in the yard outside.
"They are digging a tunnel right outside my house," my friend says angrily.
She fled as a teen to join Isis. Now 9 months pregnant, she wants to come home
'What is going to happen to us?' Inside Isis prison, kids ask their fate
Captives or defectors? Taliban fighters tell conflicting tales
Clearly, the Kurds do not think that victory against Islamic State will solve all their problems, for here in Qamishli and in towns and villages all along the Syrian border with Turkey they are digging fighting tunnels in anticipation of an eventual attack against them – either by the Turks or the Syrian regime.
But no one wants a fighting tunnel in their back yard, and the locals are irritated by the sound of constant drilling and digging beneath their homes.
"If a new war begins, then the first place that will get hit by a Turkish airstrike will be this yard," says my mate, who has two young children. "The guys doing the digging tell us they are doing it for our protection, but we tell them, 'Great – go and protect us somewhere else.' "
There is not a lot of faith in the tunnel idea. The word among the locals is that the top engineer responsible for the tunnel operation has been coerced to defect to Turkey, taking all of the tunnel maps with him, prompting the tunnel teams to re-dig their routes in the ground beneath the streets, causing even more annoyance. Tunnel collapses are frequent. In Amuda, a small town just to the west, a family's kitchen fell through the top of an ill-planned tunnel that was dug beneath their house.
"The whole tunnel operation is a f***ing mess," my friend tells me, as beneath us the drilling rumbles.
Baghouz, Syria, February 5
I am not sure how many people I have seen killed in war over the years but it must be too many because I have lost count. The forgotten tally gets upped again today.
It is afternoon, and through dusty lanes and ruined farms I walk up towards the front at Baghouz with a section of Kurdish fighters and two French friends. The late winter sun is dropping slowly through a pale grey sky and the area is quiet.
With me is Ossama, my fixer – the graceless term used to describe the local guide and translator on whose skills I depend in this area of the war. Ossama and I have known each other a long time and are easy in each other's company.
There was a time when fixers and fighters were older than me. Now I have grown grey and lined in a quarter-century of wars, and my fixers are all a generation my junior, young enough to be my sons. Even the generals look young these days. Ossama indulges my bad temper, palliates my impatience, teases me gently and calls me "the old man", which amuses me. Mostly.
En route we stop at a field headquarters for a briefing by Adnan Afrini, a Kurdish commander whom I met in the same zone a few months earlier. As we talk, a friend leans over my shoulder to tell me that back in the UK the security minister, Ben Wallace, has remarked that he believes that John Cantlie, the British journalist abducted in Syria and held hostage by Isis, is still alive.
It is not just the hopes of the families and friends of these missing captives that makes them so important. The existence of foreign hostages held by Isis was entangled with the very start of western intervention against Islamic State, and the caliphate's impending defeat in Baghouz begs an answer as to their fate. Without it, the story of the war against Islamic State has no proper ending.
Cantlie, a freelance photographer, has been the longest missing of all. He was abducted in November 2012 along with a friend, the American journalist James Foley. At one point, the two men shared cells with 21 other western hostages held by Isis. The majority of the Europeans were later released after their governments paid multimillion euro ransoms, but when Isis realised that neither the UK nor the US would pay in a similar fashion, they began murdering the British and Americans.
Foley was the first to be killed, beheaded with a knife in August 2014. Three Americans and two Britons were killed the same way, and the videos of their deaths caused such revulsion and outrage it pushed the Obama administration to intervene in a conflict it had previously tried to avoid.
Now go-betweens acting for Isis in Baghouz have suggested that Cantlie and two other missing hostages – New Zealand International Committee for the Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi and the Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio – may yet be alive. It is unclear whether the hostages really have survived, or merely that their names are being used as a negotiating ploy by Isis to secure safe passage out of the siege.
I ask Adnan Afrini what he thinks.
"There are discussions between British special forces and our senior commanders over John Cantlie, and possibly with Isis too," he tells me.
We leave the headquarters and move forward. As we reach the front and move through a couple of abandoned buildings my escorts stop their cheerful banter and swing through the rooms ahead of me, grim-faced and fast, assault rifles up and fingers on the triggers, ready to kill any Islamic State fighters who may have infiltrated the position.
We move up to a rooftop, hunched and heads down, crawling to the edge of a low wall where we look out across no man's land through the gun ports knocked into the bricks. Five hundred metres away we see Isis fighters moving around on motorbikes. We watch as two men on foot and another man on a motorbike enter a yard. There is a sudden zip-swish sound from the sky as a drone unleashes a rocket and the yard disappears in a cloud of brown dust.
"Uh", "Huh" and "Heh" is what we say. We wait a while, then scrabble back off the roof and head to another house for a cup of tea. The impact of the deaths of strangers is so transient: interesting to watch and utterly forgettable afterwards. I sleep well that night on the floor of an abandoned house. Unfazed.
Hasakah, Syria, February 10
I am sure the Canadian prisoner from Toronto knows something of John Cantlie's fate, but – if so – he gives nothing away. You may know his voice already. The man goes by several names, but is best known as Mohammed Khalifa. He was one of the main figures working for al-Hayat, the Isis production company that made many of the terror group's videos including the Lend Me Your Ears series in which John Cantlie played the roles both of narrator and captive.
Khalifa was recently captured by the SDF on the battlefield west of Baghouz. We meet at an SDF headquarters. Determined to die in keeping with the style of the fighters he lauded in Isis videos, Khalifa had stayed behind as Isis withdrew from a village near Baghouz and hid in a bunker for three days waiting to attack the SDF. On hearing fighters moving nearby he emerged, attacked them and was wounded before his gun jammed and he was captured. "I was prepared to die," he says. "It was what I had come to Syria for."
Perplexed by his continued existence ("It is confusing to find myself alive," he says), he tells me that no official from a western intelligence agency has questioned him about the British hostage. It is a rushed and faltering interview, my questions are wooden and Khalifa twists and turns one way and another, never denying that he has met Cantlie, never confirming it either.
As soon as it is over, I get back in the car with Ossama and head south for the Euphrates valley, back towards Baghouz, driving fast to reach it before nightfall, irritated at how little information I drew from Khalifa.
Al-Hawl camp, Syria, February 13
What follows is a mixture of intent and chance. I arrive in al-Hawl camp tired and out of focus having driven hundreds of miles over the previous days, pinballing around the compass face with Ossama to cover the long reaches of the desert war.
At first, staff in the camp's administration office tell me there are no British citizens among the recent arrivals of Isis families from Baghouz. I have no idea whether or not they are telling the truth, but I keep the conversation going anyway. I have spent the budget for my assignment and have to begin my journey home the following day, so this is the last chance to find out if any of the Bethnal Green girls have survived and made it to al-Hawl.
The minutes turn into hours past milestones of coffee, tea and cigarettes as I sit in the fug of a small room, waltzing conversation around with the staff.
"I know that there are British Isis wives in this camp," I tell them. I don't.
"Do you want to see Canadian Isis wives?" they respond, laughing. "Or French? We've got lots of both. But no British."
In this way, it goes on. Finally they break. Bored of my presence there, one of the staff walks out muttering that he has better things to do than wander around a camp filled with thousands of people looking for English women. He reappears a few minutes later with two veiled muhajirat – Isis foreign females – and two children.
"Here are two muhajirat who say they are prepared to speak with you," the man says. He does not know their nationality, much less their names. The women sit down. One introduces herself as a Canadian. We begin to talk. Then the other speaks and I hear those words:
"I'm a sister from London. I'm a Bethnal Green girl."
Shamima Begum, 19 years old and heavily pregnant, is sitting in front of me. It is as well I have finished my coffee or I would have spat it across the floor in surprise. I gather myself and ask if she would mind speaking to me in the empty yard outside so we can talk in private.
Over the next hour and a half, the runaway former schoolgirl tells me her story. She talks of her marriage to a Dutch fighter; the death of her friend, Kadiza Sultana; her husband's imprisonment by Isis; and the later deaths of her infant son and daughter. Nothing she says shocks me. I have met many young women like Shamima Begum before. An incomplete changeling, she is both an indoctrinated Isis wife who talks of being unfazed by the sight of a severed head, and an unconvinced sister of the caliphate, angered by the levels of oppression by Islamic State she experienced at first hand.
"I'm really pleased I met you and that you're still alive," I tell her at the end of our conversation. It is true, and as I drive back to Qamishli to write and file my report, I reflect that her story is one of tragedy. I know too that she spoke to me because she was desperate to save the life of her unborn child. She wanted help. She wanted to come home. In turn, I thought our encounter was the start of her salvation, not her damnation.
Qamishli, Syria, February 14
I wake up at dawn, long before most people in the UK are even aware of the story in The Times. Nick Robinson interviews me over the phone ahead of his shift for Radio 4's Today programme. I am adrenalised by the war and clear-minded. He in turn coils and whips his questions. It is a good combination. Nothing ever shifted in the opinions I express to him that day.
I get in a car and begin the long road to Iraq across desert and river. It is dusk by the time I arrive in Erbil. I go to a bar and drink until my 3am flight. It is Valentine's Day. There are red heart-shaped balloons in the bar and love songs on the sound system. I feel as if I have walked in from Mars.
United Kingdom, March 8
News on the radio tells me that Shamima Begum's newborn son is dead. I stand in the kitchen at home, open-mouthed, not quite believing what I have just heard. Ten days earlier a friend had called me to let me know that the portrait I took of Begum was being used by a gun club in the Wirral as a target for punters to pump full of holes. Enraged, I called the Times lawyers to sort it out. But I can't fix this with lawyers. My hate mail picks up again. There has been a lot of it. For having advocated clemency in her case I have been told – twice in the street and often in writing – that I am an enemy of my country, a disgrace to my nation and a security threat. I have received emails saying that I am a liberal terrorist who should be "removed". Now others say I walk on the backs of her dead children and should pray to God for forgiveness. I despise them all.
Isolation is an integral part of being a foreign correspondent and I am confident in the role of journalism in democracies. But I have to face it: in the space of 23 days the teenage girl who came to me in the hope of help has had her citizenship revoked, lost her third child, and become the focus of a wave of brutish national rage – the lightning rod for Britain's angst. I am part of her downfall.
Baghouz, Syria, March 26
The battle has finally ended. The caliphate is dead. The suicide belts have been removed from the corpses of those Islamic State soldiers who chose to fight to the very end, and are piled by the edge of the track where they sit like eerie totems to deaths redirected.
A breeze ripples the scorched banks of rushes at the edge of the Euphrates snapping at the torn nylon tents and picking up small clouds of dust that twirl through the desolate vista as fist-sized jinns.
There are few more ghostly sights than the end of a battle. Much of Baghouz resembles the aftermath of a death cult festival, where fans had remained so fanatical even in its last moments that some had kept their children with them to join in certain death: pushchairs and babies' shoes are scattered among the IEDs; cooking stoves, pots and pans lie among blood-soaked blankets, bullet casings, twisted rifles and shrapnel shards.
I never meet anyone in Syria who uses the word "peace" without sounding embarrassed, like they have made some kind of tasteless joke. Yet this day, staring out across the ruins, seeing the detailed totality of Islamic State's defeat, the war seems to have a sudden point and meaning, a trajectory suggesting the end of it all might indeed be nigh.
Yet of the missing western hostages there is no trace.
Al-Roj camp, Syria, March 30
The rambling woman in black is gone. Gone, too, is her scattergun vernacular. Dressed in a maroon hijab, her face and hands uncovered, Shamima Begum speaks to me with calm reflection.
Given all that has happened since I met her in February I am surprised that she agrees to see me again: she has not seen any other journalist since before the death of her third child, Jarrah, three weeks earlier, shortly after being moved to a new camp, al-Roj. Jarrah was just over two weeks old when he died of a respiratory infection. He is buried in an unmarked grave on the other side of the wire.
We talk for about an hour. Towards the end I ask how it all began.
"At the time I was slightly depressed," she says finally. "I didn't have a lot of friends. I wasn't really connected with my family. I couldn't speak about any problems I had, so it was easy to manipulate me, and people online were telling me, 'Oh, your family don't pray. They don't listen to you. They won't listen to you if you tell them to pray and start practising properly. They'll take you to hellfire if you stay with them.' A lot of it was based on the fear of going to hellfire."
Alone, without citizenship, incarcerated behind wire, all her children dead, a hate figure, she is in hellfire now.
London, United Kingdom, June 19
I am recently back from Libya when The Times receives a production order from SO15, the Counter Terrorism Command, asking me to hand over my notes, audio and photographs from my first interview with Begum. The Met is trying to build a case against her and wants my material. The newspaper's lawyers call and ask me how I feel about the police request. The ethos of being able to work in wars, interviewing insurgent groups, members of terrorist organisations, gang members, or marginalised elements of society, depends on talking within an arena of trust. Handing over notes to the police on request is a major breach of that trust, and a dangerous one too, making me an accomplice to the state. I tell the lawyers I am not willing to hand over anything. The Met will now take it to the Old Bailey for a judge to decide.
Old Bailey, London, United Kingdom, September 4
Justice Mark Dennis takes a circuitous route in summing up the case. So circuitous that for a while I am unclear as to where he is heading and fidget uncomfortably in court. The consequence of a decision in the police's favour is unknown. A friend has said that, if things do get complex, they can get me a job in the café at the Ford open prison, but I'd be a bad barista. Fortunately, Justice Dennis gets there in the end and rules that I do not have to hand over anything to the police. I am happy enough, but I would be surprised if this is the end of the matter.
Hasakah Prison, Syria, September 29
HMP Ford would be paradise compared with the prison for male Isis detainees in Hasakah run by the Kurds. There are 5,000 men and children in captivity here, including a large number of foreign fighters, all of them captured at Baghouz in the last weeks of the battle. They lie crammed in the foetid cells of a prison that boils in the heat of the day and freezes in the cold of night. Space is at such a premium that to sleep the prisoners must lie shoulder to shoulder in a tangle of orange-clad limbs. The conditions are reminiscent more of concentration camps than suggestive of justice – and that is in the cells I am allowed to see. In the security office I photograph the banks of camera screens showing real-time footage from cells where human beings look as if they are woven together, so densely are they packed.
Many have wounds, some are missing limbs and an undisclosed number of the injured have died in the absence of proper medical facilities. There is no coherent process of investigation that might lead to trial, let alone a judicial process in these darkened corridors and crowded floors. So the mood among the men and boys in the cells here simmers with alternate fits of hopelessness and rage, and riots, fights and breakout attempts are frequent.
As so often happens when working with Ossama I have been lucky, gaining access to this place through pure chance. Driving back from Raqqa a couple of days earlier, we had an impromptu meeting with a senior Kurdish official who responded to my request to visit this prison with an immediate gesture of affirmative grandiosity.
The conditions are disgusting.
"I am a child!" a 13-year-old Iraqi boy calls out from a cell in the medical block. "My parents are dead. I am innocent of any crime!" Beside him, a 24-year-old Belgian pulls up his shirt to reveal intestines bulging out from beneath a blood-soaked bandage."I am not saying I am innocent," he murmured, "only that I was young and made a terrible mistake."
It does not matter how much people at home wish to see Isis fighters punished in this way. Aside from being inhuman and regressive, kettling thousands of Isis militants together in one of the most insecure areas of the Middle East poses greater security problems than it resolves.
The Kurds in charge describe it as "a time bomb that can explode at any minute".
Ramilan, Syria, October 1
Liberty has a dark side. Many of the Yazidi women freed from Isis enslavement in Baghouz are mothers, impregnated early in their captivity, which began when Islamic State overran Yazidi communities around Mount Sinjar in Iraq in August 2014. Some of their children are now four years old, yet due to their strict cultural traditions the Yazidis will not allow these mothers to return home with the children of Isis rapists.
A few of the women are happy to hand over the children they never wanted to the Child Protection Centre in Ramilan. Other Yazidi mothers are devastated, but have no choice.
The oldest of the abandoned Yazidi children I see here is four years and two months old; the youngest, just six months. All were born to Yazidi women enslaved and raped by Islamic State fighters.
The effect of these forced separations on the children varies according to their age. Among them is four-year-old Nada. Nada is so traumatised by the forced separation from her mother that she cannot sing a nursery rhyme that includes the words "mum" or "mother".
"Whenever she hears the word 'mother' in a song or rhyme, she freezes in place, unable to move, and starts to cry," explains Nazhi Allawi, a counsellor at the care home. "Just the sound of the word 'mum' traumatises her with recollection of the separation that neither her nor her mother ever wanted to happen."
Qamishli, Syria, October 16
Rony Iskan was one of the Kurds guarding the prison in Hasakah holding the Isis detainees captured in Baghouz. The Americans trained him for the task.
"The Americans taught me how to be a guard in the prison and trained me in unarmed combat so I could deal with unruly Isis prisoners," the 18-year-old tells from a hospital bed in Qamishli, showing me his shrapnel wounds and broken arms.
Yet as soon as Turkey began its offensive into northeastern Syria on October 9 after Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from the border, Iskan was sent to the front. His skills in unarmed combat were not much use against Turkish aircraft and he was blown up in an airstrike.
"I thought the US were our allies, unified against a joint enemy," he says. "I don't have words to describe the sense of betrayal."
Tal Tamr field hospital, Syria, October 17
I like to think I can handle most of what I see in war but Mohammed Hamid is putting me to the test. A 13-year-old Kurdish schoolboy, his upper torso from his waist to his chin has been flayed by fire after he was set ablaze the previous night during the Turkish bombardment of Sere Kaniye.
He is in agony, and his screaming – the continuous sound of a child's extreme pain – silences the ward. Recognising that his burns are unusual and unlike most blast and flash burns I see, I film and photograph his injuries during the initial moments after he is brought into this field hospital. Turkey will soon announce that this burnt child is an actor and claim the scene is faked, so documenting the reality is important. But keeping my hands still on the camera, just a couple of feet from this ravaged body, as his screams ring through my ears, is challenging. My head keeps veering left in an effort not to look at the skin my camera is filming. His eyes are almost as bad to behold as his burns: the look of distilled terror in them is that of a child horrified by the extent of his own pain and injury.
Swamped by the casualties they are receiving from the fighting north of the town, the medical staff in Tal Tamr do not have the facilities to treat the boy properly. They bandage his torso and fill him with morphine, then discharge him. He overnights in a nearby village as his condition worsens and his body begins to swell.
Tal Tamr field hospital, Syria, October 18
The dead are bathed in a small morgue around the back of the hospital. There is not enough space for all the bodies, so some of the corpses have been placed on the ground in the yard outside, where they are washed and re-assembled by a team of volunteer women in headscarves.
One of the team is a chainsmoking male hospital porter in green scrubs who pushes a red wheelbarrow filled with bits of people into the yard. I watch them as they work; sponging away the blood and gore, putting severed limbs beside torsos, gently covering a faceless body's frightful injury with lint, before they wrap and bind the corpses in blankets and cloth, then stack them in a refrigerator truck to be taken away to a larger morgue elsewhere.
Not much is said in this place of quiet movement. Nor does anyone display much expression. Yet there is a tremendous tenderness in their movements. Inside the hospital there is high drama of life and death struggles. Here though, in this small hot yard where death has triumphed, I notice a peculiar grace in a fight, already lost, that somehow continues.
Qamishli, Syria, October 19
Looking for Mohammed Hamid, I find the burnt boy in a hospital in Qamishli. His grandfather has driven him here by car because there were no ambulances available. His condition has worsened considerably and he is now in deep shock. Mohammed Hamid will surely die if he stays in Syria. No one can treat this level of injury here – there is only one burns doctor in this part of northern Syria and his phone is switched off.
The previous night I called Sonia Kush, Save the Children's regional director in Jordan, and asked if she could intercede on the boy's behalf. Now, just hours later and as a result of her involvement, an ambulance is about to arrive to evacuate the child and his father to a burns unit in Iraq. Nothing good ever happens in Syria, so it is difficult to digest or believe this news. But it is true. An ambulance arrives and takes him to Dohuk in northern Iraq. From there he is flown by a helicopter to Erbil, then by plane to France, where he disappears from my vision into a military hospital, leaving me with the memory of his horrified eyes, flayed skin and the sound of that screaming.
Ramilan, Syria, October 20
Working with a new translator is akin to extreme speed-dating. Things have moved fast between me and Mr K. He was a total stranger to me until Ossama – who is away elsewhere – introduced us via WhatsApp. Mr K and I subsequently exchanged a few text messages. A Syrian Kurd in his thirties, a father and former schoolteacher, next he and I shared a phone call so I could check his spoken English, then agreed to work together. The deal involves living together, travelling together, and experiencing the war together on an intense, fast-moving timeframe: blood, guts, burns, bodies and all the rest of it. We met on a riverbank a week or so ago, shook hands, stepped into a car and began.
Complicating the dimensions of this relationship, Mr K's home is in the town of Sere Kaniye, the main focus of the Turkish attack, so he has lost his house at the same time as starting a new job. His wife and young daughter are now living with relatives in Hasakah.
Today is the first time that the shaky ceasefire agreed by Turkey with the US three days earlier in Ankara begins to take hold. The deal between the two nations might end the Turkish attack in Syria, conditional on the Kurds pulling out of Sere Kaniye. Effectively, this will leave Mr K's home town in the hands of Turkish-backed Syrian rebel militias, the scum of the revolution, whose Facebook sites are already filled with video clips of the atrocities they have committed during the operation in support of the Turkish army. The clips show the militiamen executing kneeling Kurdish prisoners, cutting the head off a wounded Kurdish fighter, and stamping on the body of a dead Kurdish woman shouting "bitch" and "pig".
So it is quite understandable when Mr K, receiving a phone call to tell him that his house is in the hands of Syrian rebels, starts to cry.
"It's a good day to cry," I tell him.
Tell Brak, Syria, October 21
Today it is my driver's turn for grief. Ahmed receives news that his brother-in-law has been killed in the fight with Turkey. He doesn't cry though. His elder brother, his nephew, and two cousins have already all been killed fighting against the Turkish army, Islamic State or Syrian jihadist groups. A former Kurdish fighter, Ahmed's face remains as inscrutable as an Easter Island statue as he concentrates on the road ahead. "Tomorrow, can I have the morning off for the funeral?" he asks.
Al-Hawl camp, Syria, October 22
The Tunisian teenager who bit Aylul Rizgar in al-Hawl must have done so very hard, because the crescent tooth marks are still on Rizgar's upper arm four months later when she rolls up her sleeve to show me.
The 30-year-old director of Syria's most infamous internment camp seems near the end of her tether when I see her today. We have met several times over the previous six months. In that time she has been stoned, spat at, bitten, scratched, covered in fuel during an immolation attempt, and repeatedly threatened with decapitation.
In the same timeframe, al-Hawl has fast deteriorated from being a disorganised but relatively stable internment camp where I first met Shamima Begum all those months ago, to a violent ghetto with multiple murders, riots and no-go areas where female members from al-Hisbah, Islamic State's vice police, have begun enforcing Isis edicts on the camp's population once more. Originally designed for just 10,000 refugees from Iraq, now it has 68,000 people inside its wire perimeter fence, the majority of them Isis families. Among these are 10,100 foreign nationals from 53 countries including 18 British women and their children.
Meanwhile, the Turkish attack has accelerated the eroding security situation, as over half of al-Hawl's 400 guards were redeployed to the front, leaving just 150 on duty around the camp. Escape attempts by Isis women skyrocketed in the same period.
Rizgar and I sit and discuss the recent spate of killings in the camp – seven in the past three months. The first occurred earlier in the summer when al-Hisbah killed a teenage Azerbaijani girl. Then a pregnant Indonesian woman was beaten to death. Recently, the dismembered body of an Uzbek woman was found in a cesspit and a dead baby was found in a bag by the mosque. Rizgar is sure there are other bodies hidden in the camp and tells me she can smell them when the wind is right.
She has had enough of al-Hawl and has just volunteered to go to the front to fight against Turkish forces instead.
"At least there I would know that my enemy was to the front, not behind me and all around me, as it is here," she says, an edge of desperation in her voice.
Al-Roj camp, Syria, October 23
Considering that she hates journalists and I loathe Islamic State it is a miracle that Shamima Begum and I manage to communicate at all. Given all that has happened since our first encounter, it is no surprise that the atmosphere is complicated whenever we meet: not hostile, but complex. Her case is the most toxic story I have ever worked with in any war, and I think back to that first time we met in al-Hawl in February as if it were a different era. Yet in recognising my responsibility in the story I cannot leave it.
Today, our third meeting, we spar.
"You've made me out to be a heartless bitch," she says in a sudden flare of anger.
"I have put everything you have ever said in context," I respond.
"You don't have to speak to me. There are others here you can speak to."
"I don't want to speak to anyone else here, but you don't have to speak to me either. We can both leave this room without speaking to each other."
"Ok. Then let's speak."
The atmosphere calms after that.
Her sense of being vilified is acutely honed, and returns when, towards the end of our meeting, I suggest taking her portrait again. She is wearing a maroon chador and a nose stud, and her image is very different to that of the veiled woman in black I first met in al-Hawl in February. She demurs.
"People will hate me just to look at me," she says. "Or they will say I am dressing in a certain way just to create an impression. It doesn't matter what I am wearing."
We part coolly. I walk out of the gates into the autumn sun away from the young woman whom I searched for, found, and left with less than she began with, and step back into the land of absurd betrayal and meaningless endeavour.
Written by: Anthony Loyd
© The Times of London