Syrian opposition forces have agreed to evacuate the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya in a deal struck with the Syrian regime on Thursday.
The deal has brought an end to the longest stand-off in the war, which broke out in 2011 in the context of the "Arab Spring" revolutions.
The suburb has been regularly pounded by regime air strikes since the onset of the war and was the scene of one of the conflict’s worst atrocities in 2012 when some 200 people were executed by pro-regime forces.
"We reached agreement on the evacuation of all of the people of Daraya, civilians and fighters," said Captain Abu Jamal, the head of the Liwa Shuda al Islam, the biggest of the two main opposition groups inside Daraya whose fighters are drawn from its residents.
The medical charity Red Crescent arranged for aid convoys to enter Daraya as hundreds of opposition forces got ready to evacuate the area.
Early on Friday Red Crescent ambulances reached the besieged town, located a few kilometres from Bashar al Assad’s Damascus residence and the regime-held Mazzeh airbase.
— Syrian Red Crescent (@SYRedCrescent) August 26, 2016
According to regime and opposition sources, the deal will see some 700 opposition fighters move to the opposition stronghold of Idlib with their light weapons, while 4,000 civilians will be moved to regime-run "shelters" over a period of two or three days, starting on Friday. Heavy weapons will be seized by the regime.
— اسلام (@AfroArabian_) August 25, 2016
"We got the freedom of getting civilians to leave freely to liberated areas or wherever they want. Otherwise it would have been a final surrender with the regime taking us as prisoners of war and sending civilians to an unknown fate," Abu Jamal said.
Before the war, Daraya, which saw some of the first pro-democracy protests emerge against Bashar al Assad’s autocratic regime in 2011, hosted a population of around 250,000 people.
Really sad, this was the first demonstration for Daraya in support of Deraa at the beginning of revolution pic.twitter.com/K2BmYdYkWG
— Malcolmite (@Malcolmite) August 25, 2016
A regime-enforced food blockade on the suburb has taken its toll on the people there. The UN has long condemned the regime for using starvation as a weapon of war against civilians.
Despite agreeing to allow the UN to deliver food to Daraya as part of a cessation of hostilities deal in June, only one shipment has made it since then.
The evacuation comes a week after the suburb’s only hospital was destroyed by a regime air strike.
— Syrian Network (@snhr) August 19, 2016
Hamam al Sukri, a resident who had been living in a basement with his six-member family, told Reuters he found it difficult to describe his feelings about the evacuation. "We kept holding on for four years to the last breath. The city was destroyed over our heads and we are now not leaving a city but a pile of rubble," he said.
Over five years of civil war has crippled Syria, with some monitors putting the death toll from the conflict as high as 470,000.
The war has also forced half of the country’s population to flee their homes, triggering the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.