AMMAN: More than 1,600 people boarded buses in a Damascus suburb on Wednesday and were taken north to rebel-held Idlib province as part of a reconciliation deal with the regime, the fourth such evacuation around the Syrian capital in the past two months.
Opposition negotiators in Moadamiyet a-Sham, roughly 7km southwest of Damascus, reached a deal with the regime in early September to hand control of the town back to the Syrian government. The agreement came after four years of encirclement, during which time the town was subjected to starvation, bombardment and a reported sarin gas attack in 2013 that killed hundreds of people.
“Right now, residents are in shock,” said opposition negotiator Mahmoud al-Khateeb, “facing the reality of leaving or returning to regime control after years of revolution.”
Under the terms of the deal, all Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and any residents unwilling to agree to an amnesty with the Syrian government would be evacuated to opposition-held Idlib province in northern Syria. After that, state institutions would return to the town and the regime will lift the blockade.
The deal makes Moadamiyeh the fourth rebel-held town just outside Damascus to evacuate rebels and residents to northern Syria in the past two months after surrendering to the regime. Similar agreements and evacuations took place last week in Hameh and Qudsaya, sister towns west of Damascus, and in Darayya, located just southeast of Moadamiyeh, in late August.
The Moadamiyeh evacuation was delayed for weeks due to a lack of accord about whether rebels would be allowed to bring light weaponry with them after leaving the town, two opposition negotiators told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
This week, after the regime permitted rebels to take rifles, pistols or sniper rifles with them, “one weapon for each person,” the evacuation plan was reinstated.
At 7am on Wednesday, the rebels and residents due to leave the city along with their loved ones, started gathering to board the 70 buses that would transport them northward.
Moadamiyeh residents and pro-opposition news networks livestreamed a huge crowd of hundreds of residents gathering in the town, once of the symbols of the opposition’s steadfastness, on Wednesday morning. The videos show residents hugging and kissing each other, middle-aged men toting blanket-wrapped bundles, children wheeling suitcases and rebels with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Some came to leave. Others came to say goodbye.
Reasons to go, reasons to stay
The choice to leave for Idlib, currently ruled by Islamist rebels and subjected to ongoing regime and Russian bombardment, or stay in Moadamiyeh and return to regime hands, has left people “divided,” said opposition negotiator al-Khateeb. For now, more than 40,000 people remain.
“I chose to go because we will all be forced to kneel,” Dani Qappani, a young citizen journalist from the town told Syria Direct on Wednesday, “and submit to the regime after what it did to the people of this city.”
After the deal was made and the evacuation date was set, Qappani said, “I went to visit my father’s grave for the last time.”
In the few moments he had there, Qappani said, “I asked him to forgive me. I told him I wouldn’t give up on what we hoped for.”
Later, from one of the buses, Dani posted a picture of his city from a distance, writing “the heart breaks at seeing Moadamiyeh from far, far away.”
The chance for a normal life after four years under siege is why most of Moadamiyeh’s 45,000 residents are staying. One of them is Yassin al-Qalamouni, a 40-year-old father.
“The military factions couldn’t find a solution during the years of blockade, as our children died of hunger and bombing,” al-Qalamouni told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“All they can do to protect those who remain, to keep the children alive, is to leave.”
Muhammad, a 33-year-old resident, told Syria Direct that he “documented regime violations” in Moadamiyeh in recent years, leaving him at risk for retribution. He is staying anyway, he says, because he is an only child, and his widowed, elderly mother wants to remain in her home.
“I know that staying means fear and subjugation,” said Muhammad, “but that is nothing compared to my mother. I’ve decided to stay, and I’m preparing myself for the worst outcome.”
Nour, not his real name, a 15-year-old orphan who chose to stay in Moadamiyeh, told Syria Direct he did so because “my place is in this city, and nobody else can take it.”
“Those who stayed chose hell, and those who left chose hell.”