Four towns, one agreement and the ‘same tragedy for all’: Buses arrive ahead of mass evacuations

AMMAN: Buses entered four besieged Syrian towns—two pro-regime, two pro-opposition—on Thursday, as thousands of civilians, fighters, medical workers and activists wait to be evacuated as part of a complex agreement between the warring sides.

A total of 8,000 residents, including wounded people and pro-Assad fighters, are set to leave the two regime-loyalist towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya in Syria’s northwest Idlib province. The two Shiite-majority towns, which neighbor each other, have been surrounded, blockaded and bombarded by hardline Sunni Islamist rebels for more than two years.

In exchange for the Fuaa and Kufraya evacuations, some 3,400 people—a number that includes civilians and roughly 160 rebel fighters—will leave Madaya and Zabadani, towns in the Qalamoun mountains northwest of Damascus that have been encircled by regime forces and their ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, since July 2015.

“Yesterday, there was deep sorrow, everyone said their goodbyes,” Hussam Mahmoud, an activist and former member of the United Relief Organization in Madaya and Zabadani told Syria Direct on Thursday. “Today, people are waiting around with their suitcases near the buses, afraid the exit could be delayed again.”

All of the evacuations are part of a deal between the Syrian regime and rebels in Jaish al-Fateh—an operations room that includes members of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—reached in late March. Under the agreement, brokered by Qatar and Iran, all of the roughly 20,000 residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya will leave their homes for regime-held parts of Syria, with rebels taking control. In the Outer Damascus towns of Madaya and Zabadani, all rebels and any civilians choosing to leave will go to rebel areas, and the regime will regain control.

If completed successfully, the agreement will end two years of siege, sniping and bombardment in all four towns. The four towns at the center of the deal were already linked by the Iranian-brokered, often-violated “Four Towns Agreement,” which stipulated parallel aid deliveries and humanitarian evacuations.

The first stage of implementing the new Four Towns Agreement, reached in March, began on Tuesday night with an exchange of prisoners—fighters, women and children—and corpses between Jaish al-Fatah rebels and pro-regime forces based in al-Fuaa and Kufraya.

 Ambulances inside al-Fuaa on Thursday. Photo courtesy of N.Z.F.K.

Syrian state media agency SANA reported the exchange as the beginning of the “first stage of the agreement to evacuate the residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya” on Wednesday.

The first round of evacuations was due to begin on Wednesday, but the operation was delayed until Thursday due to “logistical issues,” pro-opposition sources said.

Buses entered regime-encircled towns near Damascus on Wednesday, but never reached the rebel-encircled Idlib settlements, where local news page N.Z.F.K. alleged that the convoy had been “threatened” by “terrorist groups.”

On Thursday, scores of buses and ambulances did enter al-Fuaa and Kufraya, according to pictures posted online by N.Z.F.K. and reports in local pro-opposition media. In Madaya, buses also idled on Thursday, while residents waited to be evacuated.

Many of those registered to leave Madaya, Zabadani, al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Thursday are sick and injured residents. During the blockade of the four towns, shortages of medical supplies combined with bombardment and sniper attacks reportedly led to preventable deaths.

While regular airdrops of supplies by Syrian government helicopters helped al-Fuaa and Kufraya withstand the siege, Madaya and Zabadani were dependent solely on aid allowed in by the regime. Landmines and pro-regime snipers made it nearly impossible to smuggle goods or people in and out of the Outer Damascus towns.

 SARC ambulances wait to enter Zabadani on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Stringer/AFP.

As a result, mass starvation was reported in Madaya in early 2016. While regime forces later allowed the entry of sporadic international aid shipments, medical complications, sniper attacks, meningitis and suicide continued to plague the trapped residents.

After living under siege for nearly two years, “a person who has lived in Madaya can live anywhere,” activist Mahmoud, who was preparing to leave the town on Thursday, told Syria Direct. “It doesn’t matter that we are going to Idlib, even if there are bombings,” he added. “Anywhere else will be more merciful.”

Russian, regime and United States-led coalition aircraft regularly bomb opposition-held Idlib province.  The southern Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun was also the site of a major chemical weapons attack by regime forces that killed and injured hundreds of people.

Idlib’s population has swelled in recent months as thousands of Syrian rebels and civilians arrived in the province by bus amid surrender agreements with the regime in a series of towns across the country.

Doctor Muhammad Darwish, a former dental student and one of three medical professionals who lived in Madaya throughout the siege, has chosen to leave the town with the first round of evacuees.

"I have waited months for this day,” Darwish told Syria Direct. “After Wednesday’s delay, I’ve become agitated. I’m sitting in Madaya, and there is a volcano inside me that will explode from the waiting.”

“Leaving Madaya is like a soul leaving its body,” he said. “But it was decided for us. The regime wanted to impose its control sooner or later.”

It is not immediately clear how many of Madaya’s roughly 40,000 residents will leave for Idlib province in the coming days and weeks. While civilian doctors, activists and the family members of fighters are not required to leave Madaya and Zabadani, many are doing so in fear of retaliation from the regime after it regains control of the town.

Rula Ghussun, a Madaya resident whose brother, Ali, died of kidney failure as a direct result of the siege earlier this year, told Syria Direct that she is not going to leave.

“I chose to stay with my brother’s killers,” Ghussun said, “because I do not want to leave Madaya, where I was born. Idlib is not safe, and my mother and I cannot bear living in the camps.”

Some inside Madaya and Zabadani, as well as opposition supporters and officials outside the towns, have decried the latest evacuation agreement as demographic change, since Sunnis in the Outer Damascus towns and all Shiite residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya will leave their homes.

Sources inside Madaya and Zabadani echoed the accusation of demographic change. And in south Damascus, hundreds of residents demonstrated on Wednesday against the agreement, labeling it “displacement” and “demographic change.”

The same agreement also provides for the evacuation of Fatah a-Sham fighters (formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing) from southern Damascus, as well as a nine-month ceasefire and aid deliveries.

In pro-regime al-Fuaa and Kufraya, two towns that will be entirely emptied of their original populations in the coming weeks, residents did the same as their counterparts in Madaya, gathering their belongings and saying their goodbyes in “cautious anticipation” of leaving.

Many of those to leave on Thursday from the Idlib towns are the sick and injured, as well as their family members, Ahmad Shahadeh, a doctor in al-Fuaa told Syria Direct on Wednesday, citing “fears that the evacuation could be blocked by the gunmen who surround us.” Shahadeh intends to remain in his town until the last round of evacuations.

 Madaya residents wait with their belongings on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Madaya

“This could be demographic change,” Hussein, a nurse and father of two in pro-regime Kufraya told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “But there are no other solutions.”

On Wednesday, Hussein and his family, who will leave in the first evacuation, gave away belongings to family members and friends who are, for now at least, staying behind. He and other residents visited places and people important to them.

“I don’t know whether to be upset or relaxed,” said Hussein. “I am leaving my home, but my family is getting out of the siege. I believe that after we leave, there will be hope.”

“Nobody knows what we went through during the siege,” the nurse added. “We feel for our brothers in Madaya and Zabadani, because we are living the same tragedy.”

“Despite our different political views, we are all under siege.”

‘Regret’

Also included within Thursday’s scheduled evacuations are 350 residents of Wadi Barada, a cluster of towns northwest of Damascus. The residents had initially chosen to stay under a previous surrender agreement that saw its towns and villages return to regime control earlier this year.

Some civilians and fighters who stayed regretted their choice, and now have another chance to leave.

One of them is Umm Hareth, a 30-year-old mother of six from the Wadi Barada village of Deir Qanoun.

“I regretted not leaving in the first evacuation with my husband,” she told Syria Direct on Wednesday, while waiting to board a bus for evacuation.

Her husband, a rebel, had been evacuated to Idlib province earlier this year, while Umm Hareth remained behind with the children. She says it became clear the family could not stay, however, after “my house was raided twice, because my husband was with the "terrorists.’”

Afraid that it could get worse, she plans to leave on Thursday, if the evacuations go through.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.