Before the Syrian uprising in 2011, Darayya, a town southwest of the capital Damascus, was most well-known for the grapes grown there, and as a good place to buy furniture.
Over the five years since, it became a symbol of the rebellion, one of the first towns to rise up and the site of some of the most enthusiastic peaceful mobilization against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Protestors famously offered regime soldiers roses and water. The activist responsible, Ghaiath Matar, was subsequently arrested and tortured to death by regime security forces.
Protests turned to gun battles, and in September 2012, regime forces blockaded rebels and residents inside the town, which is located next to a key regime military airport on the outskirts of Damascus.
The blockade, accompanied by bombings that reduced Darayya to a shattered wasteland, continued for four years.
Last week, after four years of the regime’s “kneel or starve” policy, Darayya knelt. On Thursday, a deal between the authorities in the town and the regime provided for the evacuation of the remaining residents—some 8,000 people, both fighters and civilians—to rebel-held Idlib province and a regime-held town just 15 minutes away.
How did they say goodbye to their town, perhaps for the last time?
A man left water behind for a beloved houseplant. Another took a handful of earth from the grave of his friend. A young girl left her doll behind to keep her house safe. A woman kissed the walls of her home, then burned her furniture.
Some children, the same age as the blockade, tasted ice cream for the first time after leaving. Some slept, relatively safe from bombings for the first time in their lives.
Darayya. Photo courtesy of Yara al-Najem and Creative Memory.
This week, those who clung to life for years in shelters under the rubble of Darayya, and who left over the weekend, spoke to Syria Direct’s Hussam Eddin, Bahira al-Zarier and Israa Sadder.
Here, 5 people who left Darayya, two of whom are related to Syria Direct reporters, share what they chose to take with them, and what they left behind.
Fadi Muhammad, a citizen journalist from Darayya, currently in Idlib province.
I left a jug of water dripping on a plant that I took care of for four years. I saved the plant from under the rubble of a house bombed by the regime. I cared for it until it became green again. Every day, I would tell it ‘good morning,’ as though it were a close friend.
When I went, I left it with what water I could, so that it stays alive, in the hope I will return before it dries out and shrivels. I have a great hope of returning to my city and driving out those who occupied it.
Photo courtesy of Fadi Muhammad.
Umm Mayas, 29, a widowed mother of two: Mayas, 7, and Muadh, 4. Her husband, an FSA fighter, was killed by a barrel bombing in 2013. She is currently in a reception center with her children in Harjaleh, a regime-held town roughly 12km southeast of Darayya. She and the others in Harjaleh will be there for several days, receiving medical checks and identification documents, then they can go elsewhere. She says she will stay in Harjaleh because she has no relatives and doesn’t know where to go.
Q: How did you say goodbye to Darayya? And your home?
Before I left Darayya, I went to the grave of my husband—my two children and I—and I kissed it. I told him: You will remain in Darayya, which you shed your blood and gave your life for. I’m leaving, because of the evacuation agreement, the bombing, the hunger. But you’ve stayed, which proves your love for Darayya, for its soil.
Alongside many of my neighbors, I burnt my furniture, so the regime won’t steal and sell it. I only took my children’s clothing, some suitcases. I cried bitterly while burning my furniture, because I was leaving my town, where I was born. And I wished I had died before this day.
My daughter, Mayas, was taking her doll. But when I told her we wouldn’t return to Darayya, she left the doll in the house, telling it: Stay at home where it’s safe. There won’t be barrel bombings or missiles on Darayya, protect it from the strangers.
I started crying then, with my whole heart, because my daughter is really attached to her doll, and she left it to protect Darayya.
Q: When you arrived at the Red Crescent shelter, what did you feel? What about your children?
When we got to the center, which is a single room, the children were given some biscuits, chocolate and ice cream. My son was looking at them with amazement! The children were asking us about these foods, asking us what they were made of. In Darayya, we were eating one meal a day, soup. The children said to me: This food is delicious. Why didn’t you give it to us in Darayya?
My son Muadh is four years old. Since Darayya was blockaded, he hasn’t seen these foods. And even Mayas, she’d forgotten their taste. It wasn’t just my children, all the children from Darayya reacted like mine.
If you saw my children’s joy at this taste, then the whole world would know how the children in Darayya were living. We spent most of our time in the [bomb] shelter, deprived of everything, even the sweetness that is available to most children in the world.
That first night, we felt safe. We slept without fear of the bombings.
Q: Do you have hope of returning to Darayya?
When I left Darayya, I kissed the walls of my home. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to see them again. All of the factions have abandoned the people of Darayya. Fighting for themselves; they didn’t help us. We surrendered to the regime and accepted its conditions.
Sadness and defeat consume me because I left Darayya, but what consoles me is seeing my children happy, eating some of the foods they’ve never known. I hope that the war will stop and we will live in peace. We’re tired of war and hunger. We’re tired of bombing, death and loss.
Don’t our children deserve to live like those in the rest of the world? But it’s fated for our children to die. War deprived them of their right to feel safe and secure. It deprived them of all their rights to education, and even to eat until they are full.
Residents and fighters started to leave Darayya on Friday. Photo courtesy of Local Council of Darayya City.
Abu al-Ezz, 20 years old, is an FSA fighter from Darayya who left the city on Saturday. He dropped out of high school and joined Liwa Shuhadaa al-Islam in November 2012 alongside other male relatives. He is currently in Idlib province near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
Q: After four years in Darayya, what were you thinking about on the road out?
I never believed that I would leave Darayya one day.
Our revolution was different from that in other parts of Syria. We tasted destruction while life outside was normal. The rebels in Darayya only had light weapons. There wasn’t much ammunition, anti-tank or anti-aircraft munitions. We weren’t as strong as the regime. The lack of weapons made it hard to withstand. We were short on food, eating one meal a day. The situation in the liberated areas [elsewhere in Syria] was different, they controlled larger areas and had greater numbers and more ammunition.
On the road, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. I was disappointed with the factions in the south, who didn’t come to our aid [Ed.: Some in the opposition chalk up the surrender of Darayya to a perceived failure by other rebel factions—particularly those in the south's Daraa province—to open new fronts there with the regime and draw attention away from Darayya]. I was happy to meet the fighters in the north.
Q: How did you say goodbye to Darayya?
With many tears, and with great sadness for the blood of my friends and loved ones, which watered the earth of Darayya. And with the hope that we will come back, victorious.
I still don’t believe what’s happened. I saw our house on the road out of Darayya, after four years. It was still standing. It hasn’t been damaged, a palace against the scale of destruction and rubble. But I wished it had been destroyed, so that nobody but me could tamper with its memory.
A garden in Darayya earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Local Council of Darayya City.
Abu Muhammad, a farmer from Darayya. He left the city on Friday and is currently in Idlib.
When I left in the first group, we were in a hurry. I left some livestock behind that I was raising, and some chickens. They were locked inside and I remembered them just before the bus started moving. I asked one of the fighters standing nearby to free them, so they could live on what grows in the ground.
I wouldn’t leave them without anybody to take care of them. They are living souls. I believe it deep inside. After we’ve gone, God won’t forget anybody. In his mercy, he will take care of them. What’s important is that I do my duty towards these souls.
Rami, an FSA fighter from Darayya, now in Idlib province
[Before I left, I was thinking,] I don’t have anything from here to take with me. There’s just the grave of my friend, that’s the only thing I could say goodbye to. I thought, perhaps I’ll take a handful of earth or the wooden sign that I placed as proof of his burial site.
I went to the graveyard to say goodbye to him. I couldn’t keep myself from crying. Their souls and graves are precious to us; it hurts to leave them behind. We promised them that we would stay together, and here we are leaving. The dead will remain alone in Darayya.
Migratory birds flew over Darayya on August 26, the first day of evacuation. Photo courtesy of Local Council of Darayya City.
Ayham Abu Muhammad, a citizen journalist from Darayya who worked with the media office of FSA affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Islam. He is currently in Idlib province.
Q: What prompted the decision to leave?
After four years of bombing and blockade, and the disregard of everybody to help, those in the city needed to avoid a second massacre, which was approaching due to the lack of resources, the cut supply routes, the used-up ammunition, and the savage, non-stop campaign by the regime since the Flames of Darayya battle in August 2015 and until now.
The regime used Russian military expertise and reconnaissance devices that weren’t previously available to it. That made resistance much more difficult, especially with the supply routes cut and the lack of any kind of anti-tank weaponry. All that weakened the strength of military resistance.
The regime forces burned the crops, which were the last resort for the blockaded residents, and made starving to death the only choice available. The blockaded people were forced to accept an offer by the regime to secure the safe exit of all those in the city.
Q: Who made the decision, and what were the steps?
It was previously agreed in Darayya to choose a negotiating committee, tasked by the civilian and military authorities and the civilians inside Darayya to make the decision.
The initial agreement—for the residents to leave [to Harjaleh], and for the fighters and their families to go to Idlib with their light weapons in exchange for turning over heavy weaponry—was made. After that, the committee met with the civilians and active groups in the city, and the city’s situation and the regime’s offer was presented to them.
An agreement was reached in that meeting to accept the offer and leave, and to organize those [civilians] wanting to leave to [regime-held Harjaleh], in Outer Damascus, and then the withdrawal of fighters with those civilians choosing to go to Idlib.