AMMAN: Bus after bus streamed out of Douma city on Monday as fighters and civilians began to evacuate the final opposition-held pocket in East Ghouta, signaling the end of a major rebel presence on the edge of the Syrian capital.
The evacuations, part of a surrender agreement between East Ghouta rebel faction Jaish al-Islam and Syrian government ally Russia, are the conclusion of a weeks-long government military campaign on the enclave that left more than 1,700 dead and thousands of others injured.
Jaish al-Islam agreed to leave Douma city on Sunday, one day after a suspected chemical attack there killed and injured scores of people.
“The killing is over,” Muhammad Samer, a medical student from Douma, told Syria Direct via WhatsApp from one of dozens of buses leaving East Ghouta on Monday. “In the end, Douma will return to the regime.”
The 23-year-old said Douma residents had one question for each other on Monday: “Are you leaving or staying?”
While all rebel fighters are set to leave under the terms of the agreement, civilians may choose whether to stay or go.
Samer and three of his brothers chose to leave because they fear conscription in the Syrian army, he said. He used a pseudonym because the rest of his family will stay behind in East Ghouta, where between 78,000 and 150,000 people remained encircled by government forces, according to United Nations (UN) estimates released on Saturday.
Approximately 130,000 additional East Ghouta residents left the area since March 9, the UN reported last week. That number includes some 50,000 people who left for rebel-held areas in the northwest within previous evacuation deals and about 80,000 who left to the Damascus countryside through established “humanitarian corridors,” including one at the al-Wafideen crossing just north of Douma.
Syrian government forces first encircled East Ghouta—a cluster of working class farming towns just outside Damascus that became one of the rebels’ most prominent strongholds—in 2013. Five years of bombardment and siege devastated the enclave even before violence reached a crescendo in a massive pro-government campaign that began earlier this year.
“Ghouta is finished,” Omayr a-Doumani, a 36-year-old Douma resident, told Syria Direct via Telegram from another bus departing the city on Monday.
Buses started leaving Douma through the al-Wafideen crossing on Sunday night, Syrian state media reported, and as of time of publication were assembled in nearby, government-held territory. The first convoy is expected to leave for the rebel-held city of Jarablus in northern Aleppo province on Monday night or early Tuesday.
In all, approximately 8,000 fighters and 40,000 civilians are expected to depart Douma, Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik reported on Sunday.
Once Jaish al-Islam leaves, Russian military police are set to take control of Douma for an undefined period, according to a statement released via Telegram on Sunday by a civilian committee that took part in negotiations with Russia.
Jaish al-Islam did not announce any agreement via official channels. For weeks, the faction maintained that it would not accept any agreement with Russia or the Syrian government that included the evacuation of fighters from Douma. Jaish al-Islam did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
In exchange for the evacuation of rebel fighters to Jarablus, Jaish al-Islam will release “all abductees in Ghouta,” SANA reported on Sunday.
A live broadcast on state television showed a bus allegedly carrying the first group of prisoners arriving to government-held territory on Sunday. The passengers—mostly women and children—flashed victory signs and waved at a cheering crowd.
As each passenger descended from the bus, they recited their name to a state news correspondent. “Congratulations,” he said to each, “and thank God for your safety.”
Most of those released Sunday night were kidnapped from the city of Adra—about 10km northeast of Douma— by rebel forces in 2013, SANA reported.
With additional reporting by Ghina al-Ghabreh.