Eastern Ghouta exodus: As rebel area falls, many take leap into 'unknown'

After more than a month of Syrian and Russian bombardment that has claimed 1,700 lives, the residents of eastern Ghouta have three stark choices: evacuate north with rebel fighters to Idlib province; fall under government control in camps near Damascus; or stay in the last opposition island of Douma, waiting for inevitable defeat.

Ammar Al Bushy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Footage captured by an unmanned aerial vehicle March 27 shows the desolation in Arbeen, Syria, in eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege by the Assad regime and Russia. Many civilians are evacuating.

Three weeks ago, Amer Zeidan saw no way out of eastern Ghouta but death.

It was impossible, he said, for civilians to trust a Syrian regime that devoted so much energy to bombing and starving the opposition enclave into submission.

His grim forecast proved true for his sister, Marwa, whom he buried last week.

Barely a week after reporting this loss, Mr. Zeidan made the decision to leave. Between 3 and 7 a.m. on Tuesday, the Syrian aid worker types away at a new batch of messages documenting the start of a long-dreaded journey out of his neighborhood, Arbeen.

“All of us are entering into a dark tunnel, and we ignore what will happen to us,” he says. “We have left everything and are headed to the unknown.”

After more than a month of Syrian government and Russian bombardment that has claimed 1,700 lives and seen the loss of 90 percent of the last rebel enclave in the suburbs east of Damascus, the residents of eastern Ghouta have only three stark choices.

As the noose tightens, they can either be evacuated (with defeated rebel fighters) to Syria’s rebel-held northern province of Idlib, which will almost certainly be the next regime target; or fall under government control in camps closer to Damascus; or stay in the ever-shriveling last opposition island of Douma, waiting for the results of an inevitable defeat.

While changes on the battlefield are now forcing decisions like never before, for most the carnage has been so severe that it is premature to talk of peace and reconciliation. The Monitor heard voices from inside the enclave, who in recent days explained why they chose each one of those options, and the forces at play in their decision-making.

In February, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described eastern Ghouta as a “hell on earth.”

Despite an ensuing UN Security Council cease-fire, declared Feb. 24, relentless bombing and military advances translated into a civilian exodus and agreements to remove the anti-regime fighters who have controlled the largely Sunni enclave since 2012.

The evacuations started last week and gained momentum, with more than 101 buses leaving early Tuesday for Syrian rebel-held territory near the border with Turkey.


This photo released by the official Syrian news agency SANA shows government forces overseeing the evacuation of rebel fighters and their families from eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, Wednesday, March. 28, 2018. UN coordinator Ali al-Zaatari says at least 80,000 people have fled the government's offensive in the eastern Ghouta suburbs.

Zeidan describes his fellow passengers as civilians: activists, humanitarians, and rescue workers known as the White Helmets. All felt they would not be safe or at ease living in an area controlled by the Syrian regime. Other buses transported fighters and their families.

From siege to surrender

The mass departures are the outcome of talks with Russia, trusted marginally more than the Damascus regime, although it has provided essential firepower to keep the government of President Bashar al-Assad in place and itself has contributed to breaches of cease-fire agreements. Critics call the mass departures a forced displacement and warn that such evacuations could amount to war crimes.

“A civilian committee of four people negotiated directly with the Russians twice in the areas of Jisreen,” Zeidan writes. “Leaving was the most difficult decision to make. The choice was either live under the shadow of a criminal ruler or get out of his land.”

For many observers, the script from siege to surrender has become chillingly familiar and borderline formulaic. This latest exodus is part of a long sequence of rebel capitulations masked as local cease-fires. They ultimately bolster the Russian and Iran-backed Assad regime at the expense of an armed opposition that enjoyed enough foreign backing to keep the fight alive but not win.

Pro-Assad forces now control more than 90 percent of eastern Ghouta. The Damascus suburb served as a launching pad for rebel attacks on the Syrian capital. It also endured more than five years of air-strikes, chemical attacks, shelling, and siege that killed thousands of people and left vast areas in rubble.

Civilians stuck in the middle have paid the highest price.

“Assad and his allies have used local cease-fires, de-escalation zones and freeze zones to increase civilian suffering, perpetrate demographic re-engineering, and advance militarily,” wrote Mohammed Alaa Ghanem in an analysis for Chatham House this month, describing the “bogus” cease-fires as integral to Assad’s military strategy.

One of the major Syrian rebel groups in the area, Failak al-Rahman, an Islamist group that has taken part in UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva, agreed to evacuate last Friday. Its fighters have been boarding the buses of defeat ever since.

Brief talks with Russian 'victors'

Abu Akram, a brigade commander who was fighting in the town of Zamalka and gives only his nom de guerre, describes talks with the Russians as little more than a one-way street.

“Everything went very fast,” writes Mr. Abu Akram, who boarded a bus with a group of his men. “The negotiating committee couldn’t get a word in. They approached it as victors and set the terms. Show up at this place, at this time, and go.”

Russian and Syrian forces launched a full-scale assault on eastern Ghouta Feb. 18, dividing and defeating one rebel pocket after the other despite the UN cease-fire. The campaign was so intense it reduced residential areas to rubble and pushed the population into basements for weeks on end to survive.

The journey out has been traumatic and humiliating for many. As part of the deal, thousands of Syrian opposition fighters and their families, as well as civilians, have been heading to Idlib, a province in the north and the largest remaining area outside government control.

“The first buses to leave endured a lot of harassment,” says Zeidan. “Today we only had to give our names. We waited on the bus for seven hours before starting. It’s been 15 hours with no one allowed off, not even the children who need to pee.”

Abu Akram says the buses to Idlib drove through the pro-Assad Alawite heartland along the coast, giving an opportunity to regime supporters to curse the vanquished fighters. The commander says he joined the revolution early, defecting from the army after his younger brother was killed by a stray bullet fired from a regime checkpoint.

With 50 of his men around him on arrival in Idlib, and nursing a serious leg wound, the commander ignored even where they would spend the night after a 23-hour-long journey. “My soul is broken because the fatigue of seven years was a lot for nothing,” he writes. “The tears won’t leave my eyes. I have lost all hope in life.”

He believes the best option for his own future is to find work, make money, and pay a smuggler fee to leave Syria and cross into Turkey. He fears Idlib, the main recipient of various vanquished elements of the Syrian armed opposition, will suffer a fate as brutal or worse than eastern Ghouta.

“Idlib will end up with a massive massacre because it is under the control of [Al Qaeda-linked] Nusra Front,” he says. “They will commit genocide with the pretext of eliminating Nusra.”

'The terror of being outside'

Others have fled to government-held territory by the thousands, making use of humanitarian corridors. Among them are Noor and Nemaat, civilian women from the neighborhoods of Douma and Sabqa, respectively, who have spoken to the Monitor regularly throughout their ordeal.

Reflecting the climate of fear synonymous with the Syrian regime even before the war, both shunned communications for days after their arrival and felt ill at ease to report much beyond their immediate survival.

“I have replaced the terror of being inside (eastern Ghouta) with the terror of being outside,” writes Noor, six days into her stay in government-controlled Damascus. “I feel completely estranged.”

Her decision to leave had been largely shaped by a sense of responsibility for her father, who needed medical treatment, and her toddler and unborn child. However, on the day of departure, Noor was separated from the men in her family and she has had no news of them since.

Syrian state TV estimates that more than 110,000 people have been absorbed into regime-held areas. More than half of them are held in temporary shelters near Ghouta, according to the UN. Writing about her first encounter with the Syrian Army and aid workers, Nemaat recalls: “I doubt they even consider us as human.”

A video circulating on YouTube showed a Syrian government minister handing out water to thirsty crowds only after they chanted pro-regime slogans. Other images on social media appeared to show Syrian soldiers taking selfies with the vanquished population, crowds of thin veiled women and children in the background.

Only one pocket in eastern Ghouta remains now outside of government control. Talks are underway with the Islamist rebel group Jaish al-Islam. A spokesman for the group, Hamza Bayraqdar, says the rebels are talking about staying put in Douma, not evacuating. Syrian troop movements suggest a fresh onslaught is in the cards in the absence of a deal.

'I would stay'

Civilians who outlasted the siege want nothing more but to stay put, but say no one is consulting them.

“The most important thing for me is to not leave my Ghouta,” says Douma resident Samira, who spoke to the Monitor over many weeks. She describes a horrifying day of bombardment in which taking advantage of an unusually calm morning to take out her 9-months-pregnant daughter for a walk ended with both of them running for their lives through rubble and into a basement. Surrounded by death, she prays for a smooth delivery of her now overdue grandson.

Samira, who has been active in the opposition and in local relief efforts, is one of tens of thousands left in Douma, unwilling or unable to abandon their land. Home has the highest value. “If there are guarantees, I can stay put and reconcile,” she says. “I would stop all work and lay low, not come and go. I would stay home.”

Young aid worker Alaa Abu Zeid in Douma fields questions from his mother and friends all day long about what to do next. He doesn’t know whether they should try to leave for Idlib like his fighter brother or stay put. To avoid overthinking, he throws himself into online English lessons at night.

“People right now are open to the idea of reconciliation because they have lost all the things they treasure most, but people are scared,” he says.

“We are unable to make a decision because we ignore what is next,” he writes. “All the choices before us take us to hell, whether it is leaving our land or staying put with people we do not trust.”

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