AMMAN: Thousands of fighters and residents boarded buses leaving East Ghouta’s central sector on Sunday under a Russian-backed surrender agreement set to leave the enclave’s de facto capital Douma city as the last rebel-held bastion in the eastern Damascus suburbs.
As many as 4,000 people are expected to depart from the opposition-held East Ghouta town of Arbin on Sunday, a Syrian state media correspondent said during a live broadcast from the area.
In the background of the state television broadcast, dozens of buses could be seen waiting for government inspections amid rows of destroyed buildings and rising columns of smoke. After inspection, the buses will leave for rebel-held Idlib province in Syria’s northwest.
“I’m leaving because the situation here is terrifying,” Abu Osama, an East Ghouta resident, told Syria Direct from one of the evacuation buses on Sunday morning. “I just want to escape.” The 23-year-old asked that his full name not be published for security reasons.
Abu Osama’s bus left East Ghouta on Sunday holding only civilians—approximately 25 people—in addition to a driver and a Russian soldier who served as an escort, he said.
Passengers pray during a break along the route from East Ghouta to Idlib on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Abu Osama.
Evacuations from Arbin—in East Ghouta’s central sector—began on Saturday, when some 1,000 fighters and their family members departed, state media outlet Sputnik reported, citing a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry.
Failaq a-Rahman, which controls East Ghouta’s central sector, “negotiated with the Russians and reached an agreement providing for the exit of fighters and civilians” following the surrender and evacuation of a nearby rebel-held pocket last week, Wael Alwan, the Istanbul-based spokesman for the faction, told Syria Direct on Sunday.
Pro-government forces split the besieged, opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs into three sections controlled by three different rebel factions earlier this month in a string of military advances.
The total number of people who will depart from the central sector over the coming days is not yet clear, Anas al-Jamal, vice-president of Arbin’s local council, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the exit operations,” he said.
Syrian state television said that about 7,000 people would leave, Russian outlet TASS reported on Saturday.
“I’ve lost everything dear to me—my house, my neighborhood,” 28-year-old Nour a-Deen, who was evacuated from Arbin on Saturday, told Syria Direct from opposition-held territory in northern Hama province the following day. “We couldn’t take it anymore.”
Residents who wish to remain in East Ghouta will be allowed to do so under Russian guarantees, “but we have no trust in the Russians,” said Failaq a-Rahman spokesman Alwan. Moscow is a longtime backer of the Assad government in Syria.
With evacuation deals in place in the central sector pocket and nearby Harasta, only East Ghouta’s de facto capital and largest population center, Douma, remains under rebel control. But even there, thousands of civilians are streaming into government-held territory on a near-daily basis via the al-Wafideen crossing north of the city.
Russia declared the al-Wafideen crossing a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians leaving the rebel-held enclave last month, Syria Direct reported. Since then, a number of other crossings have been established, and more than 108,000 people have departed East Ghouta for government-held territory, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
With additional reporting by Ghina al-Ghabreh.