RASHIDIN • Hundreds of civilians and fighters who have been under crippling siege for over two years, left four Syrian towns in fleets of buses yesterday under a delayed evacuation deal.
Men, women and children packed onto the buses, expressing despair at leaving their homes with no way of knowing when they might return.
"When I first went onto the bus, I broke down from sadness, I fell on the ground and they had to help me," said Mr Abu Hussein, a resident of the government-held town of Fuaa. "I just couldn't bear it."
The deal to evacuate government-held Fuaa and Kafraya, and rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani, is the latest such agreement in Syria's six-year civil war.
They have been touted by the government as the best way to end the fighting, but rebels say they are forced out by siege and bombardment.
>30k Number of people expected to be evacuated under the deal, which began on Wednesday.
16k Number of residents of Fuaa and Kafraya expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus.
Critics say the deals permanently change the ethnic and religious map, but President Bashar al-Assad insisted on Wednesday that the evacuations were only temporary, and people would return once the "terrorists" had been defeated.
The evacuation of the four towns had been due to start on April 4, but implementation of the deal brokered by rebel supporter Qatar and regime ally Iran late last month, was repeatedly delayed.
Over 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal, which began on Wednesday with an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces.
All 16,000 residents of Fuaa and Kafraya are expected to head to government-held 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 part of a longstanding agreement reached in 2015, that requires aid deliveries and evacuations to be carried out in all areas simultaneously.
But access has been limited, with food and medical shortages causing malnutrition, illness and even death among besieged residents.