Second round of evacuations unfolds in caution, fears in aftermath of car bomb

AMMAN: Thousands of fighters and civilians left their homes in rebel- and regime-besieged towns on Wednesday in the second round of evacuations within a surrender and population-transfer deal between the warring sides.

An estimated 3,000 pro-regime fighters and civilian residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya, neighboring regime-loyalist towns in the north that were besieged by rebels for more than two years, boarded a convoy of 45 buses and headed towards Aleppo city early Wednesday. 

By mid-morning on Wednesday, evacuees from the two Shiite-majority Idlib villages had reached the Rashideen district, the opposition-held gateway into regime-held Aleppo city.

There, they waited for the arrival of roughly 500 rebels and civilians evacuated from the Hezbollah- and regime-besieged Outer Damascus towns of Zabadani, Madaya and surrounding settlements the same day. Once they arrived, the two groups would switch places—opposition evacuees going to Idlib, pro-regime evacuees heading into Aleppo city.

Buses carrying fighters and civilians from al-Fuaa and Kufraya in Rashideen on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

The latest round of evacuations is similar to last week’s transfer, which began on Friday but was delayed for more than 24 hours after an unclaimed car bombing killed at least 126 evacuees from pro-regime al-Fuaa and Kufraya while they waited in Rashideen.

Due to fears of a similar attack, Wednesday’s evacuations from Outer Damascus and Idlib were not publicly announced until they had already begun, sources on the ground from both sides told Syria Direct.

“We left in great secrecy,” Amer Burhan, a medical worker from Zabadani told Syria Direct via Facebook from one of the evacuation buses. Civilians, he said, feared a “bombing like what happened in Rashideen, or obstacles to prevent the exchange being completed.”

In al-Fuaa and Kufraya, activist Jamal said the evacuation was not publicized out of “fear of revenge from extremist factions.”

“The people evacuated today were really afraid,” Jamal told Syria Direct, “but the situation inside the towns has become much worse than any explosion.”

After the latest round of evacuations, 8,000 residents remain in the Idlib towns, said the activist.

The ongoing population transfers are part of a complex surrender and population-transfer agreement reached in late March between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the Jaish al-Fateh operations room, which includes Ahrar a-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

The deal, brokered by Iran and Qatar, will see all residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya leave their homes for regime-held territory, with Idlib rebels regaining control of the towns. In exchange, all rebels and civilians choosing to leave Madaya and Zabadani would leave for rebel-held territory.

A pro-government fighter from al-Fuaa and Kufraya sits with a child in the Rashideen area on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

After the last fighters and their families left the Outer Damascus towns on Wednesday, pro-regime media reported the area of Zabadani and Madaya was “completely secure and free of gunmen.”

Before leaving Zabadani, the 158 remaining fighters “burned their remaining military equipment,” Zabadani Karamah, a 40-year-old Ahrar a-Sham fighter told Syria Direct from the buses on Wednesday, using a pseudonym.

Pictures posted on pro-regime media show smoke rising from burning ammunition and rebel headquarters in Zabadani and nearby al-Jabal a-Sharqi, from which 80 fighters were evacuated.

“We said farewell to our demolished city with tears,” Zabadani medical worker Amer Burhan said. “The bombings left no stone in it untouched.”

Some Zabadani evacuees left painted messages on the stones and walls of the city in recent days, as others have done in other Syrian cities in previous evacuations.

“I clung to you with everything I had,” reads one such message in a picture posted online by a local Facebook news page. The note’s author signed it, “from a thin body and a bleeding heart.”

Posts on social media by opposition activists claimed that some 750 opposition prisoners had been released from regime prisons on Wednesday, pursuant to the terms of the agreement. Syria Direct could not immediately confirm the reports.

Five of the buses in the convoy carried residents of the Outer Damascus Wadi Barada region, who had initially decided to stay in their homes in a previous surrender agreement but later regretted their choice.

Evacuees from al-Fuaa and Kufraya wait in the Rashideen area on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of RFS.

The Wadi Barada residents were scheduled to leave with the first round of evacuations, but their exit was repeatedly delayed, Umm Hareth, one resident currently traveling in the convoy told Syria Direct.

“I won’t relax until I get to Idlib,” Umm Hareth said via messaging app WhatsApp. “I’m afraid there could be a bombing, or the terms of the agreement could be suspended while we’re en route.”

“Nobody is protecting us but God.”

Hundreds of kilometers north, in the Rashideen area, evacuees from al-Fuaa and Kufraya waited for their counterparts to arrive so the swap could get under way. Pictures show uniformed fighters, women and children.

After last Saturday’s car bombing, pictures from Rashideen on Wednesday show the buses carrying the pro-regime evacuees parked in a tight cluster formation on Wednesday, with several appearing to form a makeshift walled square that other vehicles could not enter.

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.

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.

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.