Rebels and residents begin to leave East Ghouta city in first evacuation deal

AMMAN: Fighters and civilians began to leave the East Ghouta city of Harasta on Thursday in the first surrender and evacuation deal in the besieged Damascus suburbs since the Syrian government began a major military campaign against rebels there in February.

At least 1,500 people, including “fighters, their families, injured residents and those in need of medical assistance” were scheduled to leave Harasta for rebel-held northwestern Syria on Thursday, the city’s opposition-run local council announced via social media.

Buses began to leave Harasta on Thursday morning, Hussam al-Beiruti, the president of the local council, told Syria Direct. Evacuees will pass through government-held territory nearby, where the buses will undergo “inspection” before continuing northward, he said. By Thursday afternoon, 28 buses reportedly left the town.

Ahrar a-Sham, the dominant rebel faction in Harasta, agreed to surrender the city to the Syrian government and evacuate this week in negotiations brokered by Russian representatives, Abu Mohammad Harasta, a rebel negotiator told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The talks came in response to “pressure from civilians to negotiate and hand over the area,” Harasta said, asking not to be referred to by his real name. “They couldn’t take any more,” he added.

A bus and a SARC vehicle enter Harasta on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The agreement is the first surrender and evacuation deal between Damascus and opposition forces in East Ghouta, which pro-government forces first besieged in 2013.

Syrian state media SANA confirmed Thursday’s evacuation, reporting that hundreds of residents and fighters were set to evacuate Harasta before the city returned to Syrian government control.

Pro-government forces launched an intensified ground and air assault on the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in mid-February that has left more than 1,700 civilians dead, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

On March 11, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied forces divided the East Ghouta suburbs into three isolated pockets, Syria Direct reported. The pro-government advance saw the city of Harasta and its surroundings, a roughly three-square-kilometer pocket home to an 18,000 residents, severed from rebel-held territories to the north and south.

Local council president al-Beiruti prepared to leave his home in Harasta as he spoke to Syria Direct on Thursday. “I prefer to stay of course,” he said. “My memories, my pain, my hopes are here… but I cannot live under this oppressive, treacherous regime.”

Umm Ahmad, one of the Harasta residents scheduled to evacuate on Thursday, told Syria Direct the night before that she chose to leave her home in order to care for her son, who was partially paralyzed in a government bombing on the city.

Residents evacuate East Ghouta’s Harasta on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

“I am leaving to protect him and to get him treatment,” said Umm Ahmad, 40, whose husband and daughter were killed in recent bombings. “I have nobody left in this world who ties me to East Ghouta.”

‘Voluntary’ civilian departures

As rebels and residents evacuated Harasta for rebel-held northwestern Syria on Thursday, thousands of civilians streamed out of East Ghouta settlements and headed for nearby government territory through Russian-established “humanitarian corridors.”

Over the past 48 hours, thousands of civilians from Douma, the de facto capital of the East Ghouta suburbs north of Harasta, reportedly crossed into government-held territory through al-Wafideen, one such corridor that Russia unilaterally established in late-February.

State media agency SANA reported that Syrian Arab Army “secured the exit” of 6,000 East Ghouta residents through the crossing on Thursday.

More than 300 residents left Harasta for Damascus through a newly established corridor on Wednesday, the Hmeimim Russian military base said via Telegram the same day.

Local council president al-Beiruti told Syria Direct that the civilians left on a “voluntary basis,” and their departure was not related to Thursday’s surrender agreement.

With additional reporting by Noura al-Hourani, Ghina al-Ghabreh, Lina al-Abed, Amani al-Khaldi and Daoud Mohammad al-Hariri.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.