Rebels, residents leave east Damascus district for Idlib: ‘It’s like starting over from scratch’

AMMAN: Hundreds of rebel fighters and residents left the embattled east Damascus district of al-Qaboun by bus on Sunday en route to northwestern Syria within an evacuation deal brokered between opposition factions and the regime the previous day.

On Sunday morning, evacuees from al-Qaboun gathered in Abu Jarash, a regime-held district to the west, and waited hours to board government buses, a departing resident told Syria Direct.

Around 200 fighters and an unspecified number of civilian residents were due to leave on Sunday, citizen journalist Qusay Abdelbari told Syria Direct on Sunday. Abdelbari, who himself left with the departing buses, said there was “no set number” of evacuees, and it was not immediately clear whether or not there would be multiple rounds.

As evacuees made their way to Abu Jarash from al-Qaboun Sunday afternoon, a gunman reportedly opened fire into the crowd, killing at least three civilians and injuring 25 more, citizen journalist Qusay Abdelbari told Syria Direct on Monday.*

While the full text of the reported agreement has not been released, sources in al-Qaboun told Syria Direct that all fighters, alongside their families and other residents choosing to leave, are to be relocated to rebel-controlled Idlib province in northwestern Syria.

Those wishing to remain in al-Qaboun must report to government offices and sign onto a government amnesty over the next six months, Hamza Abbas, the head of the al-Qaboun Media Center told Syria Direct.

Sunday’s evacuation follows more than two months of heavy fighting between government and opposition forces for control of the small district, which lies just a few hundred meters from rebel-controlled East Ghouta, a besieged rebel enclave on the outskirts of the capital.

Al-Qaboun, along with the adjacent opposition districts of Tishreen and Barzeh, had long been a crucial entry point for food and supplies into East Ghouta via a network of rebel-built, underground smuggling tunnels connecting the two areas.

 Rebel fighters and residents of al-Qaboun wait to board government buses in Abu Jerash Sunday morning. Photo courtesy of Abu Yousef a-Dimashqi.

In late February, the regime encircled the al-Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods, effectively halting the tunnel trade from the ground up. The siege was accompanied by intense bombardment and a ground assault on the neighborhoods.

Following months of siege and bombings, both Barzeh and Tishreen entered into evacuation deals with the regime last week. The Qaboun deal, reached over the weekend, appears to complete the capitulation of the eastern Damascus neighborhoods.

For its part, Syrian state media reported on Saturday that the government had taken control of “all parts” of al-Qaboun, with rebels agreeing to vacate the area and surrender the area to regime control.

‘Starting over’

“My feelings are indescribable,” said Abu Yousef a-Dimashqi, a native of al-Qaboun who left for Idlib province with his wife and newborn baby on Sunday. “I’m leaving my hometown, not knowing if I will ever see it again.”

“It’s like I’m starting my life over from scratch,” a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct from a government bus bound for northern Syria on Sunday.

 Pro-regime forces in al-Qaboun, Saturday. Photo courtesy of STRINGER / AFP.

But not everyone is leaving. Abu Tariq, a 50-year-old al-Qaboun resident, decided to remain in his hometown with his wife.

“I can’t move my life to a refugee camp in Idlib,” he told Syria Direct. “I’m old and too attached to my home.”

Still, Abu Tariq says he refused to allow his military-aged son stay with them, afraid he could be conscripted and find himself on the frontlines fighting for the regime.

“Even though he’s afraid he’ll never see us again, I convinced him to go,” Abu Tariq said. 

Abu Tariq lost his older son, a fighter with one of the rebel factions in al-Qaboun, after the fighting began two months ago.

Even so, the thought of losing his home outweighs the thought of remaining in his neighborhood when regime forces regain control.

“I’ll always oppose the regime after my son was taken from me,” Abu Tariq said, “but I don’t fear it.”

 “I’ll stay here and wait until I can join my lost son.”

 

*Information about Sunday's shooting became available after publication on Sunday. The report has been updated to reflect the event. Syria Direct regrets the oversight.

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.

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.

Hasan al-Rhmoun

Hassan is from Outer Damascus. He previously studied to be a teacher in Syria but couldn’t complete his education due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2012.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.