AMMAN: The first convoy of rebel fighters and residents evacuated from the Waer district of Homs city arrived in northern Aleppo province on Sunday afternoon after rebels signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime last week.
At the time of publication, a convoy of ten buses was driving toward Jarablus, a city in northern Aleppo province on the border with Turkey that is held by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels.
Inside the buses were 400 rebel fighters and 1,600 civilians from Waer, the last besieged rebel neighborhood of Homs city, an opposition negotiator there told Syria Direct on Sunday.
“A large number of those evacuated at the beginning were sick, injured and elderly residents along with their families,” he added, asking not to be referred to by name.
Waer residents board buses for Jarablus on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.
The evacuation is the first of several outlined by a Russian-brokered reconciliation agreement reached between the regime and rebels in the last rebel holdout of Homs city last week.
The terms of the agreement, signed on March 13, stipulate that evacuations of around 1500 residents occur on a weekly basis until all residents who refuse to remain in the district have left. Some 10,000 to 15,000 residents are expected to leave Waer in the upcoming weeks, according to the Homs Media Center.
Waer fighters and residents who leave will go to one of three opposition-controlled regions: the northern Aleppo city of Jarablus, the northern Homs countryside or Idlib province.
On Saturday, rebels carrying light weaponry and residents with bags of personal belongings boarded green buses, an infamous symbol among pro-opposition residents of the regime’s mass evacuations.
Russian, regime and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) representatives were all on hand to supervise the evacuation.
“The regime is taking efforts to ensure the convoy safely arrives in Jarablus,” the opposition negotiator told Syria Direct. “If they are endangered, it will negatively impact the evacuations to come.”
Jalal Talawi, an activist in Waer and a correspondent for pro-opposition SMART News, described a tense scene in the district on Saturday when the first round of 2,000 evacuees boarded the green buses.
“There was some pent-up emotion and glances exchanged between the [rebel] fighters and regime forces,” he told Syria Direct on Sunday. “The Russian representatives prevented it from getting out of hand.”
Though the evacuation of residents ran smoothly, the road to Jarablus was not free of incidents. As the convoy of buses passed through the eastern Aleppo countryside, Waer residents heard gunfire from nearby clashes between regime forces and Islamic State fighters, local opposition media reported on Saturday.
A convoy carrying residents of Waer reaches al-Bab district in Aleppo Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ensar Ozdemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Birkat Turkmani, a 30-year rebel fight from Waer, said he heard some gunfire pass over the roof of the bus.
“Children were crying and the residents were terrified,” he told Syria Direct on Sunday from the road to Jarablus.
None of the evacuated Waer residents were injured and the buses continued on their way without any damage done. The convoy crossed over into rebel-held territory near the Aleppo city of al-Bab and continued towards Jarablus.
Turkmani is one of an estimated 10,000-15,000 rebel fighters and residents who have chosen to leave Waer as part of the reconciliation deal.
“I decided to leave because I won’t return to those who have killed and destroyed Syria,” he said. “I can’t submit myself to them as though nothing has happened.”
Waer is the only remaining rebel district in Homs city since opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2015. Regime forces have encircled Waer’s 50,000 residents since 2013.
After two months of relative calm, regime forces began a renewed offensive of airstrikes, mortar shells and heavy machine gun fire on the district in early February, Syria Direct reported at the time.
Following the uptick in regime bombardment, opposition negotiators finally relinquished their demand that detained Waer residents be released, and signed a reconciliation deal. The prisoner-release demand had been the main point of contention since regime-rebel talks began in late 2015.