Five weeks since the Syrian regime launched an all-out assault on Ghouta, it holds more than 90 percent of the onetime opposition stronghold on the edge of Damascus.
To help it capture the rest, key government backer Russia has mediated talks with various rebel groups to negotiate withdrawals from the three remaining pockets.
One area was emptied under such a deal in recent days and evacuations began late Saturday for a second part, held by the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction.
That agreement is set to see some 7,000 rebels and civilians bussed from the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the district of Jobar to the rebel-dominated province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
After hours of delay, around 980 of them quit Ghouta on Saturday night aboard 17 buses and several ambulances.
They arrived in part of Hama province near the border with Idlib on Sunday morning.
Fresh evacuations were expected on Sunday.
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, around 20 empty buses and ambulances had entered the town, parking at a large roundabout.
Fighters and civilians began to board, bidding tearful goodbyes to their home towns before they headed to opposition territory further north.
– ‘Destroyed my future’ –
Hamza Abbas, an opposition activist in the nearby town of Zamalka, told AFP he was planning to board the buses too.
“People are very sad about leaving their homes, their land, their childhood memories and the place where they spent the best days of their childhood,” he said.
“They have no money, no houses, no furniture or even clothes to take with them because of this bombardment.”
As part of Faylaq al-Rahman’s deal with 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 Ghouta because how am I supposed to live alongside someone who killed my family, my siblings, my friends? With someone who destroyed me, my life, and my future?”
Since it began on February 18, the Ghouta assault 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 heavy bombardment and negotiated settlements to recapture swathes 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 quit the town of Harasta.
More than 4,500 people, including over 1,400 fighters, left Harasta for Idlib over the course of Thursday and Friday.
Talks are also underway for a deal over the third and final pocket of Ghouta, held by Jaish al-Islam, which includes the region’s largest town, Douma.
– Buses arrive in Hama –
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 night.
Armed, masked Russian military personnel boarded each bus as it left Ghouta on Saturday night, according to an AFP correspondent.
They drove all night to Qalaat al-Madiq, a crossing point into rebel-held territory that is frequently 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 morning carrying the first wave of evacuees.
From there, they are expected to head towards 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 anti-government protests, but has since evolved into a complex and devastating civil war. —AFP