The day before their evacuation from the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to rebel-held Idlib province on March 25, Amer Zaidan accompanied his aunt and mother to a cemetery in the embattled town of Joubar.
The 29-year-old media activist watched as the two women, clad in black, kneeled in front of a row of gravestones to say their goodbye to their deceased relatives.
“My mother was saying her final goodbyes to my sister who died in shelling five days ago, her 10 deceased nieces and nephews, as well as her parents,” he told Syria Deeply three days after leaving his hometown.
“My aunt was saying her final goodbyes to three sons, her husband, her grandson, and seven nieces and nephews,” he added, explaining that most of them had died in the shelling on East Ghouta since the start of the war.
For the residents of the besieged suburbs, the past week has abounded with farewells. More than 13,000 individuals, mostly fighters and their families, were evacuated to Idlib after Russia brokered a number of evacuation agreements between rebels and Syrian government forces, who are on the brink of recapturing the former opposition stronghold. Thousands more are expected to be evacuated in the coming days.
The transfers have emptied East Ghouta of most of its rebel forces for the first time since 2012, with the exception of the town of Douma, which is controlled by Jaish al-Islam, the last remaining opposition group in the area. Meanwhile, between 80,000 and 128,000 people have fled since the government launched a campaign to retake the area on February 18 that has also killed at least 1,600 people.
Syria Deeply spoke to a number of people like Zeidan who have been evacuated from East Ghouta to Idlib in recent days. Their stories shed light on the struggles faced by countless Syrians who have been forced to leave their homes over the past few years as government forces retake rebel territory.
A Journey Through Pro-Government Territory
Baraa Saarya left the Damascus region on Sunday for the first time in years, with nothing but clothes, his official documents and a hard-drive filled with pictures of his family and friends in his bag.
“This is all I have left of East Ghouta,” he told Syria Deeply.
The 24-year-old nurse from the town of Sabqa was among the thousands of people evacuated to Idlib under an agreement between the Syrian government and the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group, which controlled the town before government forces seized it on Saturday.
During the 12-hour journey, Syrian troops and Russian military police rigorously searched evacuees to ensure passengers were not carrying weapons or bombs, he said.
Activists and human rights groups previously accused pro-government forces of assaulting evacuees during transfers from east Aleppo in 2016, but Saaraya said security forces refrained from carrying out any violations this time. Many of the evacuees who spoke to Syria Deeply confirmed this, adding that they had not heard any reports of assault or arrest by Syrian security forces.
However, the same could not be said for regime loyalists they encountered while passing through government-held territory.
“On purpose, the evacuation buses passed through pro-government villages with the intention of humiliating us,” Saarya said. “The people there started spitting on us and shouting insults, especially in areas near the Homs highway.”
He said by the time his bus reached the Hama countryside, which is adjacent to Idlib, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of being hated “by the entire world.” That is until one man smiled and waved at the passengers when he saw the bus.
“At that moment, my soul was relieved a little bit,” Saarya said.
He arrived in the rebel-held town of Saraqib on Monday, but his arrival brought little relief.
“I am worried that the fate of Idlib will be the same as that of East Ghouta,” he said. “I’m worried that the regime will launch a campaign of fierce bombardment and mass killing.”
Many evacuees who spoke to Syria Deeply shared these same worries. The northeastern province, which shares a border with Turkey, is the largest remaining rebel stronghold in Syria and is home to myriad competing opposition groups in addition to al-Qaida-linked militants.
Members of the international community recently warned that Idlib may be the next bloody theater in Syria after operations in Eastern Ghouta end. Humanitarian agencies have warned that this would spell an unparalleled humanitarian catastrophe, considering that more than one million internally displaced people are currently taking refuge in the province, which is home to more than 2.5 million inhabitants.
Saarya says that if an operation in Idlib does start, he would immediately try to leave to Turkey.
“I am tired of war,” he said.
From the Bunkers to the Buses
Syria Deeply first spoke to Nivin al-Houtari last week from her underground bunker in the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. SD followed up with the 38-year-old female activist this week and found that she was one of the thousands of people who were bused to Idlib from the town of Arbin on March 25.
Al-Houtari said that the journey took 24 hours because the evacuation bus was held-up from 10 a.m. until midnight in the Syrian capital. She did not know the reason for the delay.
The bus was hot, uncomfortable and there was no food or water apart from a few water bottles and biscuits distributed by aid organizations, she said. But the delay in Damascus marked the first-time her 3-year-old daughter, Maya, had ever seen the capital, despite having lived only a few miles away her entire life.
“Maya told me: Damascus isn’t nice, Mommy, there are too many soldiers here and the pictures of Bashar al-Assad are ugly,” al-Houtari said.
Seeing Damascus for the first time in years also had an impact on al-Houtari. She noted the vast difference between life in East Ghouta and life in the capital. “It is the difference between destruction and renovation, between siege and comfort,” she said.
The process of leaving East Ghouta was especially difficult for Maya. Despite moving from bunker to bunker over the past month to hide from the shelling, Maya had always managed to bring along her favorite dolls and stuffed animals, which she refers to as her children, al-Houtari said.
But when they left their final bunker to make their way to the evacuation buses, al-Houtari said that they did not have the time nor the space to rescue Maya’s toys. “Maya thought that if she left the toys in East Ghouta that meant they would all die,” al-Houtari said. “She blamed me for not rescuing her ‘children.’”
When the family eventually arrived in Idlib at 1 p.m. on March 26, al-Houtari said one of the first things she did was buy Maya a new toy. “She was so happy. It was like I was giving her children back to her,” she said.
But, for al-Houtari, their arrival brought little relief.
“The fatigue of travel, siege, bombardment and living underground the last month is still with me. I can still smell the blood of those who were martyred,” she said.
“For this reason, nothing scares me anymore, and nothing brings me comfort. I am facing an unknown future and a new page in life that I had not planned for.”