A deal to evacuate people from four Syrian towns was halted on Saturday, leaving thousands of Syrians stuck in and around Aleppo.
The deal to evacuate people from the two Shi’ite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in return for Sunni rebels and their families leaving the two besieged towns of Madaya and al-Zabadani near Damascus was halted because rebels from Zabadani not yet been granted safe passage out, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists said.
A Madaya resident, speaking from the bus garage in Aleppo, said people had been waiting there since late on Friday night, and were not being allowed to leave.
“There’s no drinking water or food. The bus garage is small so there’s not much space to move around,” Ahmed, 24, said.
The deal was kicked off on Friday, as hundreds of civilians and fighters who have been under crippling siege for more than two years left the four towns in fleets of buses under a delayed evacuation.
Men, women and children packed onto buses leaving regime-controlled Fuaa and Kafraya and rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani, with many expressing despair at not knowing when they might return.
The deal to evacuate the towns is the latest in a string of such agreements through Syria’s six-year civil war.
They have been touted by the regime as the best way to end the fighting but rebels say they are forced out by siege and bombardment.
Critics say deals are permanently changing the ethnic and religious map, but Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad told AFP earlier this week that the evacuations were only temporary and people would return once the “terrorists” had been defeated.
At least 80 buses left Fuaa and Kafraya in the Idlib provincein the northwest, an AFP correspondent in rebel-held territory said. They arrived at a marshalling point in Rashidin, west of second city Aleppo, followed by 20 ambulances.
A source told Asharq Al-Awsat: “At around 3 am, the first convoy of buses, carrying about 5,000 people including 1,500 fighters headed towards al-Rashidin in Aleppo.”
Hundreds of “Hezbollah” militants were also among the pro-regime fighters, it added.
“The evacuation of the residents was not easy on the residents as it was for others in nearby villages. They are angry because of the sectarian-demographic change that is taking place today. Some residents have clung on to a hope of staying in their homes until the siege is lifted instead of being forced to leave their land,” it said.
“When I first went onto the bus, I broke down from sadness, I fell on the ground and they had to help me,” said Fuaa resident Abu Hussein. “I just couldn’t bear it.”
On the other side of the forced migration operation, dozens of buses transporting residents of the predominantly Sunni Zabadani and Madaya cities left the area, among them 400 rebels.
At the same time, members of the Syrian regime and its militias entered Madaya and roamed the streets in a pro-regime rally.
A driver of one of the evacuation buses told Asharq Al-Awsat that 2,200 people left the cities on board around 60 buses. The evacuation in al-Zabadani will begin on Saturday, he said.
Madaya resident Amjad al-Maleh, speaking from a departing bus, told AFP that rebels among the evacuees had been allowed to keep light weapons.
“It is a very bad feeling when you see those who besieged you and killed you with hunger and bombardment right in front of you,” Maleh said.
“Madaya cried today — the ones who stayed and the ones who left.”
Dr. Mohammed Darwish, who was on board one of the buses, said that the residents were going through a sense of “loss”.
“On the one hand, we are happy that the crisis is over, but there is a general feeling of sadness and anger on the other. We do not know the fate of the people we left behind. We do not know our fate either,” he added.
“It is as if the people have been slapped in the face. Everyone is in shock.”
More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal, which began on Wednesday with an exchange of prisoners.
All 16,000 residents of Fuaa and Kafraya are expected to leave, heading to Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia, or Damascus.
Civilians from Madaya and Zabadani will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose. Those who opt to leave will head to rebel-held territory in Idlib.
The four towns are party to a longstanding agreement reached in 2015 that requires aid deliveries and evacuations to be carried out simultaneously.
But access has been limited, with food and medical shortages causing malnutrition, illness and even death among besieged residents.
The UN says 4.72 million Syrians are in hard-to-reach areas, including 600,000 people under siege, mostly by the Syrian army, but also by rebels or the ISIS militant group.
There has been a series of evacuations in recent month, mostly around the capital Damascus but also from the last rebel-held district of Syria’s third city Homs.
The rebels have charged that Assad’s regime is deliberately forcing civilians to leave to alter the country’s sectarian map.