Syria: Evacuation of rebels and families from Darayya under way

Aid workers have begun evacuating thousands of civilians from Darayya, a suburb of Damascus subjected to four years of siege and whose last remaining hospital was destroyed last week by an airstrike.

The evacuation, which will leave behind none of Darayya’s original residents, began after opposition fighters and the regime of Bashar al-Assad agreed to a deal that would end the blockade and allow civilians and militants to leave for other parts of Damascus and northern Syria

The UN and Red Crescent are overseeing the evacuation, which is taking place almost exactly four years after a massacre in the town by government troops, one of the war’s single worst atrocities, described by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, as “appalling and brutal”.

Subsequent UN efforts to mediate a truce in Darayya failed, and on Friday the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the UN had not been consulted on the agreement.

Under the terms of the deal, the 5,500 remaining civilians in the town, will be relocated to other suburbs of Damascus and rural villages. The remaining 1,500 fighters will surrender their weapons and be sent to opposition-held territory in the province of Idlib, near the Turkish border. They are expected to depart on Saturday.

“This is unbearable, having to leave your home, surrendering it because of betrayal,” said Abu Samer, a spokesman for the local rebel group. Speaking from Jordan, he added. “I hope nobody ever tastes this bitterness.”

Once a teeming suburb of 250,000 people, Darayya is now a rubble-strewn shell. Nearly all of its buildings have been damaged or destroyed during a punishing and often indiscriminate campaign that gradually whittled down essential services such as schools and hospitals as well as homes and roads.

Darayya’s proximity to the heart of Damascus and the nearby military airport made it a central battleground for both those fighting to oust the Syrian dictator and those loyal to him. Over time, Syrian forces were supported by Shia militias from Hezbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan, and area became one of the civil war’s three defining battlefields.

Syrian government troops stand guard as a bus carrying people drives by during the evacuation of Darayya.

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Syrian government troops stand guard as a bus carrying people drives by during the evacuation of Darayya. Photograph: Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images

Assad forces, heavily backed by Iran, won one of the two other areas in May 2014, ousting opposition fighters and civilians from the old city of Homs, Syria’s fourth city. The evacuation of Homs was followed by widespread arrests of opposition fighters, in violation of ceasefire agreements.

The fate of a third area, Aleppo, Syria’s second city, remains uncertain. The opposition-held east of the city briefly fell to Assad forces in June but has since been clawed back by rebel units backed by jihadi groups.

In the three years since the massacre in Darayya, a civilian council had governed the area, its authority respected by local fighters who belonged to a western-backed coalition known as the Southern Front.

“We never had beheadings or criminality against civilians or extremism,” said Abu Samer. “Darayya was always a thorn in Assad’s side, and now they will have the rubble of all the buildings they destroyed.”

A small aid shipment in May constituted the first humanitarian supplies to reach the besieged town since 2012. But soon after aid workers departed, barrel bombs dropped by Syrian helicopters caused renewed destruction.

Opposition officials say the destruction of Darayya’s last remaining hospital, which burned to the ground after an airstrike, led to the decision to agree to surrender terms and withdraw.

“As a fighter, for the civilians in there, I will surrender before the whole world,” said Abu Samer. “The civilians were starving. We surrendered for them, to keep them alive.”

A Syrian army soldier stands at the entrance of the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya, before the evacuation of residents and insurgents started on Friday.

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A Syrian army soldier stands at the entrance of the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya on Friday, before the evacuation of residents and insurgents started. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

“We lived four years of siege and continued to fight to overthrow tyranny,” he added. “But we didn’t reach the goal.”

De Mistura urged the protection of civilians leaving the town. “The situation regarding Darayya is extremely grave,” he said in a statement. “It is tragic that repeated appeals to lift the siege of Darayya, besieged since November 2012, and cease the fighting, have never been heeded.”

Many opposition supporters see the siege of Darayya and its ultimate surrender as a failure by the international community to force the lifting of the blockade amid relentless bombardment.

“The only surrender today is the ongoing surrender of the international community to the regime’s incessant campaign of war crimes,” said Issam al-Reis, a spokesman for the Southern Front. “It is their inaction that sponsors this ethnic cleansing today.”

Source: Guardian UK

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