Syrian Government In Control After Rebels Evacuate Daraya

Aug 29, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 6:16 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And over the weekend, one rebellious city in Syria came to a truce with the regime and evacuated its fighters and civilians over the course of two days. The rebel fighters in the city of Darayya had held out for four years of siege, and civilians described life under constant bombardment with extreme shortages of food and medical supplies. NPR's Alice Fordham is on the line from Beirut. She has been covering this story. Good morning, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So I guess the first question is, where have all the people of Darayya gone now, and are they safe?

FORDHAM: Well, some of them went to an area close to Damascus, where they are being sheltered and screened by the regime. There's no reports of any problems there yet. Others - fighters and their families and some activists who are still afraid of the regime - they went to a rebel-held area in the north of the country. Now, I was able to get through to one of them - Jihad el Ahain (ph), his name is - this morning, and he sounded extremely relieved to be there.

JIHAD EL AHAIN: There's no - no bombing, no shelling, no shooting here.

FORDHAM: I asked him if he was happy.

AHAIN: I don't know - still complicated.

FORDHAM: He says he's still remembering Darayya. But he also told me that when the thousand or so people arrived from that besieged city, they were given an amazing welcome.

AHAIN: Oh, great welcomes. Actually, there's parties and everyone sees you - he's looking for you as a hero. And they all are very generous. They are being so nice to us. And, actually, people are kind, and we are shocked.

FORDHAM: I mean, remember, this is someone who's been living off siege rations for four years, which left, you know, people in the city, Darayya, malnourished. He told me, actually, there was one thing he was really looking forward to, and that was fried chicken.

AHAIN: Yes, I had fried chicken. I had it yesterday. And, actually, I insisted. We arrived here at 5 a.m., and I said, I want fried chicken. And everyone said, no, not now. I said, I insist - now I want. It was like nothing I ever tasted before. I don't know. Maybe it was, you know, like any other fried chicken, but for me it was very, very, very delicious.

GREENE: God, the relief in his voice, Alice, it's amazing. I mean, and the sudden change after being in a city that was so bombarded for so long. Did he explain why the government siege ended there and we've come to this moment where people are leaving that city?

FORDHAM: Well, I asked him about it because it wasn't actually very clear, when the truce was announced last week, why now, why this moment, when they - when they've endured so much. But he explained to me that there were various things that basically meant the rebels had to surrender. The first thing was that in that city, Darayya, for a long time, the rebels have been able to supply themselves through - through smuggling routes and also through tunnels that were big enough for fighters to physically go through and go and get food and get ammunition.

But earlier this year, regime soldiers closed off all of those routes, and no alternative was found. So obviously it got harder to fight with dwindling ammunition. And people were getting hungrier and hungrier. And the other thing that this guy described was the ferocity of the air campaign recently. He said it - you know, it had lasted a hundred days, is what he said, and that, in four years of siege, he hadn't seen anything like this - this regime bombardment. People were sheltering in basements. Life had basically stopped.

GREENE: That's amazing.

FORDHAM: And then, last week, the field hospital was hit - the only place they could get medical care. So between all of these things, they were basically left with no choice but to negotiate a surrender.

GREENE: Relieved as he is to be safe, Alice, I mean, is there something sort of difficult to deal with? I mean this was a place that was very symbolic. Some of those original peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad were there, and now here is this city surrendering. I mean, the story of Syria seemed so simple. At some point in the beginning, it seemed like an uprising against a leader. But, I mean, what is - what is the opposition? What role does it play today?

FORDHAM: Absolutely. Darayya is very emblematic of how the Syrian uprising went from something that was peaceful, that was demands for freedom and for rights peacefully expressed, to something much more painful, much more messy, much more violent. When a famous peaceful activist there was killed in regime detention, the U.S. ambassador at the time actually went to his funeral to show support for the peaceful demonstrations.

But even in Darayya, it didn't last very long. Rebel forces sprung up. They kicked out the regime. And after a very brutal regime crackdown, years of fighting ensued. And we have to be clear - the rebel fighters were just that. And they deny shelling civilian areas of Damascus, which was nearby, but they probably did do that. And many of those activists from those original uprisings - a lot of them are dead. Many of them are in exile. And for so many of them, they expressed this feeling that the capitulation, the surrender of Darayya is highly symbolic, highly painful for them.

GREENE: And I guess one of - one of the stories we're following on the Turkish-Syrian border is an example of how complicated the war in Syria has become. I mean, Turkey beginning to shell targets inside Syria and complicating the relationship with the United States. There's so much to cover.

FORDHAM: Yeah, exactly. We've seen a significant intensification of the situation in the north. Two separate U.S. allies are fighting one another now.

GREENE: Yeah. All right, NPR's Alice Fordham speaking to us about Syria from her base in Beirut. Alice, thanks a lot.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.