AMMAN: Thousands of civilians crossed from a rebel-held town in East Ghouta to nearby government-held territory on Thursday, in the largest exodus of people from the besieged suburbs east of Damascus since pro-government forces encircled the area in 2013.
“Tens of thousands of civilians have left Hamouriya,” a presenter on Syrian state television said during a live broadcast on Thursday that showed throngs of people—women, children and men—streaming into government-held territory.
“There’s no one left,” Bahjat Abu Ali, head of Hamouriya’s Civil Defense force, told Syria Direct from the town on Thursday, as he prepared to leave the town for other opposition-held territories. “Everyone fled.”
Sources from Hamouriya told Syria Direct that large numbers of people left the town on Thursday, but could not provide a precise estimate. Thousands of people reportedly entered government-held territory, while a number of others, such as Abu Ali, fled deeper into the besieged pocket.
Thursday’s civilian exit was “the largest mass displacement operation seen in East Ghouta” since the pocket was surrounded by pro-government forces in 2013, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Thursday. The monitor said that more than 12,500 had people departed from Hamouriya on Thursday and that the operation was “ongoing.”
As civilians fled across the frontlines east of Hamouriya, Syrian forces reportedly advanced into the town.
Pro-government forces were “storming Hamouriya” on Thursday, Wael Alwan, spokesman for rebel faction Failaq a-Rahman, said via his official Twitter account. Failaq a-Rahman is one of two main opposition groups in control of the besieged enclave.
“Assad’s forces are using civilians fleeing the bombardment and chemical attacks as human shields,” Alwan alleged in his tweet. Syria Direct could not verify Alwan’s claim.
The sound of distant shelling could be heard in the background of video streamed from the civilian exit point near Hamouriya on Thursday.
Civilians leaving East Ghouta arrive in government-held territory on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP.
SOHR reported that government forces captured the entirety of Hamouriya on Thursday, a claim that Syria Direct was not able to independently confirm by the time of publication.
Thursday’s mass civilian flight came after pro-government forces hit Hamouriya with hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombs, artillery shells and Grad rockets on Wednesday, the Civil Defense reported. One bomb allegedly carried chlorine gas that caused suffocation among a number of civilians.
The intensity of the bombing, which reportedly left 13 civilians dead and dozens injured, prevented rescuers from responding to victims of the attacks as rubble blocked emergency routes in and out of the area, the force said.
“We didn't think we would be able to stay alive,” Muataz Sameh, a nurse from Hamouriya, told Syria Direct on Thursday, referencing the previous day’s bombardment.
Sameh, like other Hamouriya residents, took advantage of a pause in the bombings on Thursday morning to flee. While many of his neighbors headed towards government frontlines east of the town, Sameh headed southwest, to opposition-held Ain Tarma.
“The rebels didn’t prevent anyone [from leaving],” Sameh said. “Neither did the regime.”
Aid convoy enters Douma
Syrian government forces and their allies intensified a months-long assault on the East Ghouta enclave—home to an estimated 400,000 people—in mid-February with an ongoing aerial and ground campaign that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead and many more injured.
Since the escalation began nearly one month ago, pro-government forces seized large swathes of territory from rebel factions, cleaving the pocket into three isolated sections.
While civilians fled Hamouriya, in the southernmost section of East Ghouta, on Thursday morning, a 25-truck humanitarian aid convoy entered Douma city, which lies some 5km away in the northernmost section.
Residents amidst rubble in Hamouriya on March 9. Photo courtesy of Hamouriya Media Office.
The joint United Nations (UN), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy carried food for approximately 26,000 people, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said in a statement shared on its official Twitter account on Thursday.
“Much more is needed, including medicine, medical supplies and other essential items,” the statement said.
Earlier this week, dozens of medical patients left Douma for hospitals in Damascus as part of the first medical evacuations to take place in East Ghouta since the latest uptick in violence, Syria Direct reported. The evacuations followed a Russian-backed agreement with rebel forces in the city.
Medical patients evacuated on Tuesday were among hundreds of civilians who exited the besieged suburbs via the al-Wafideen crossing just north of Douma this week, Russian state-media outlet TASS reported on Wednesday. An additional group of civilians was expected to depart on Thursday, the outlet said.
Russia declared the al-Wafideen crossing a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians leaving the rebel-held enclave last month, Syria Direct reported.
With additional reporting by Ghina al-Ghabreh.