PHOTO: Destruction in Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus, from Hezbollah and regime attacks

UPDATE 2130 GMT: Images from the removal of rebels and their families from Wadi Barada:




Rebels and their families began leaving Wadi Barada of Damascus on Sunday, more than five weeks after a Hezbollah-regime assault on the area of 10 villages and a strategic water source.

The pro-Assad attacks on Wadi Barada, held by the opposition since 2012, began December 22. Bombing, shelling, and ground assaults defied two ceasefires brokered by Russia and Turkey, and two local agreements for a truce also collapsed, one when the mutually agreed-negotiator was shot and killed.

Wadi Barada contains the al-Fija springs, which supply more than 60% of Damascus’s water. The pumping facility for the springs was damaged in late December by regime airstrikes, cutting off supply to more than five million people in the capital.

On Saturday, Hezbollah and regime forces finally reached the springs as rebels withdrew to the west. The pro-Assad assault had earlier taken three of Wadi Barada’s 10 villages.

Yesterday up to 2,100 residents — about 400 rebels, more than 1,500 family members. and 70 critically ill people — were to be evacuated. They began boarding buses around 1 pm; however, departure was delayed into the night, reportedly because of regime inspections of the passengers and vehicles.

Local Wadi Barada civil society organizations said last that more than 200 people were killed, 400 injured, and 45,000 made homeless during the pro-Assad offensive. Food, medicine and other basic supplies were cut off, as the attacks targeted journalists, medical workers, civil defense volunteers, and infrastructure as well as rebels.

Abu Uday, a rebel fighter, told Syria Direct from one of the evacuation buses with his family:

I’m pained by my decision to leave. This is the feeling of losing your land, the place where you were born and have lived your whole life…but I know that staying would have meant forced recruitment into one of the national defense militias.

Safaa, a local nurse and mother of five children, said:

On one hand, we’re terribly sad to see the rebels leaving and the regime coming in, but we are so relieved that the bombing and the encirclement will finally come to an end and that nobody else will have to die.

Since the beginning of the revolution, this has been an area at peace….We were never prepared for such a blockade. This agreement is a way to save the lives of children, of the elderly inside Wadi Barada.

It’s not a surrender and it’s not a betrayal of those martyrs who gave their lives for this land.