People walk through debris in a town in war-shattered Syria. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
People walk through debris in a town in war-shattered Syria. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Arbin, Syria — Weeping Syrians boarded buses to leave a ravaged pocket of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, in a new wave of evacuations to clear another part of the former rebel bastion.

Five weeks since the Syrian regime launched an all-out assault on Ghouta, it holds more than 90% of the former opposition stronghold on the edge of Damascus. To help it capture the rest, key government backer Russia has mediated talks with rebel groups to negotiate withdrawals from the three remaining pockets.

One area was emptied under such a deal in recent days and evacuations began on Saturday for a second part, held by the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction. That agreement is expected to see 7,000 rebels and civilians bussed from the towns of Arbin and Zamalka to the rebel-dominated province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

About 980 of them left Ghouta on Saturday aboard 17 buses and several ambulances.

Devastated Syrian civilians and rebel fighters dressed in black gathered in the early morning in the main streets of Arbin, AFP’s correspondent there said. They carried duffel bags and dragged suitcases stuffed to the brim as they shuffled past ruined buildings.

By mid-morning, 20 empty buses and ambulances had entered the town. Fighters and civilians began to board, bidding tearful farewells to their home towns before they headed to opposition territory further north. Hamza Abbas, an opposition activist in the nearby town of Zamalka, said he too was planning to board the buses.

"People are very sad about leaving their homes, land, childhood memories and the place where they spent the best days of their childhood," he said. "They have no money, no furniture or clothes to take with them because of this bombardment."

As part of agreement between Faylaq al-Rahman and Moscow, residents had been offered the option to stay in Zamalka and Arbin as the area fell under regime control. But Abbas said he would not. "I decided to leave because how am I supposed to live alongside someone who killed my family, my friends?" The Ghouta assault, which started on February 18, has left more than 1,600 civilians dead and thousands more wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Even before the onslaught, the enclave’s 400,000 residents had suffered for half a decade under a crippling regime siege that severely limited their access to food, medicine and other basic goods.

The Syrian government has used siege tactics followed by bombardment and negotiated settlements to recapture territory it had lost to rebels. Damascus and Moscow have applied this "leave or die" strategy to Ghouta as well, smashing the enclave into three isolated pockets before seeking separate evacuation deals for each one.

Under the first Russian- brokered deal in the region, hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham agreed to leave the town of Harasta. More than 4,500 people, including more than 1,400 fighters, left Harasta for Idlib on Thursday and Friday.

Talks are also under way for a deal over the third and final pocket of Ghouta, held by Jaish al-Islam, which includes the region’s largest town, Douma.

The second agreement, reached with Faylaq al-Rahman on Friday, provides for evacuations as well as medical treatment for wounded civilians and fighters and the release of rebel-held detainees. People began leaving Faylaq-controlled territory in Ghouta late on Saturday.

Armed, masked Russian military personnel boarded each bus as it left Ghouta on Saturday, according to an AFP correspondent. They drove to Qalaat al-Madiq, a crossing point into rebel-held territory that is used in such agreements.

Another AFP correspondent in the town, in the central Syrian province of Hama, saw 17 buses and ambulances arrive on Sunday carrying the first wave of evacuees. From there, they are expected to head to Idlib, the last Syrian province that remains mostly under rebel control.

Tens of thousands of people bussed out of opposition territory have been brought to Idlib in recent years under "reconciliation" deals like those negotiated in Ghouta. The population there has swelled with rebels, jihadists and civilians.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with antigovernment protests and has evolved into a brutal civil war.

AFP