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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Ghouta residents relieved to arrive in Idlib after weeks of terror

But aid agencies have called these transfers 'forced displacements'

Syrians gather to board buses as they prepare to evacuate one of the few remaining rebel-held pockets in Arbin, in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP
Syrians gather to board buses as they prepare to evacuate one of the few remaining rebel-held pockets in Arbin, in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP

A new round of evacuations from Syria's Eastern Ghouta took place on Sunday, with approximately 900 people bussed to the northern, rebel-dominated Idlib province.

But Syria's Idlib is also a war zone. Fighting has displaced nearly half a million people there since December alone, and more than a million live in camps. Aerial bombardment by the Syrian and Russian air forces is a daily occurrence, and rebel groups frequently battle one another as they vie for resources and territory.

Yet as he surveyed his family’s new home on Saturday - a tent in a refugee camp designed to hold about 1,500 people - Samir Mahfouz, a doctor from the eastern suburbs of Damascus, expressed a sense of relief.

“These are big camps. They are fit for the big numbers of the arrivals. There are good services. There are organizations that offer food and water. They are helping the people. Things are ok,” he said.

It is a grim measure of Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year, that Idlib is a respite.

Mr Mahfouz was among the thousands of Syrians bussed in the last two days to Idlib from a group of besieged suburbs of Damascus, collectively referred to as Eastern Ghouta. The area had been under siege by government forces for four years before they launched an intensified campaign to retake it in February, killing at least 1,600 people in the process and reducing neighborhoods to rubble.

“For the last 45 days, most of the people were living in basements in miserable conditions. Food, water and means of life were all scarce,” said Mr Mahfouz, who left the neighborhood of Harasta on Friday on a bus bound for Maarat Al Ikhwan, a town about 20 kilometers north of Idlib city, the provincial seat of Idlib.

About 4,500 fighters and civilians were driven from Harasta to Idlib on Friday, and the first 980 of an additional 7,000 people scheduled to be moved to Idlib from other parts of Ghouta began leaving on Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of people have now been subjected to similar transfers across Syria in the last two years, which the UN and other international organizations have called “forced displacement.”

The alternative to leaving, Mr Mahfouz and others said, is to risk arrest by the government.

Former evacuees from other parts of Syria told The National that some young men they left behind were conscripted into the government’s army, while others have not been heard from since.

“Those who left from Harasta to the regime-held areas were put in detention camps. The regime put them there in order to have the chance to separate the young men from the rest. The youth are still detained until now while women and children were released,” Mr Mahfouz said.

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The camp where Mr Mahfouz is now staying is designed to be a waypoint for evacuees until they can find more permanent housing.

“People are still unsure what their destiny will look like,” Mr Mahfouz said.

“We arrived only today and we don't know what to do,” said Abu Murad, a farmer from Harasta who had left behind the land he owned and also found himself in Maarat Al Ikhwan on Saturday.

“I used to plant tomatoes, cucumber, wheat and barley. I am thinking of finding a job here now. I have six children. The oldest is 12 years old; the youngest is seven month,” he said. “Death in Harasta would have been better than coming here.”

Abu Murad said that when he and his family boarded a bus, the only thing he knew for certain was that he was leaving Harasta.

“We were not given choices and were surprised to find ourselves in Idlib. When we were still in Harasta, we heard that people will be taken to Jarablus,” he said, referring to a city further east, in Aleppo province, that is under control of Turkish-backed rebel groups. “We were surprised that they brought us to Idlib. Now we are here in the camp.”

“There are many organizations who did their best helping us here. May God reward them for that. But the situation is difficult here,” he said.

Mr Mahfouz and others said people were still attempting to reach Turkey, despite reports the Turkish military has been using lethal force to prevent refugees from entering and deporting Syrians already in southern Turkey to Idlib.

Aid groups estimate Idlib city itself has swelled from its prewar population of around 200,000 to nearly five times that many.

“Idlib can no longer receive more refugees, especially in the city. The number of displaced people has increased in a very strange way and the camps are very full. The people of the camps want to return without being able to do so. Life is very difficult and tragic,”

It is widely accepted in Idlib that as the last Syrian province largely under rebel control, it will eventually be targeted in the same way Ghouta and other places have been. Complicating the problem is the widespread presence of fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. HTS has largely been left out of negotiations and ceasefires rebels have brokered with the government.

“People believe that if the presence of (HTS) in the province of Idlib will continue, our destiny will be like the fate of the rest of the cities,” said Abu Hammam, a local aid worker in Idlib.

*additional reporting by Ahmed Barakat in Turkey.