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Thousands Evacuate Eastern Ghouta In Syria


Let's turn now to Syria and to the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, where thousands of people are bidding goodbye to their homes and boarding buses to leave, maybe for good. This is part of a deal with the government to end the rebel presence in the area, but not everyone is accepting this offer of exile, as NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Syrians inside the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta are saying goodbye. In this video posted on social media by an opposition activist, a man stands in the darkness and sings a final farewell to his home and his life in this town.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: Much of eastern Ghouta is barely recognizable. Years of war and a recent intense bombardment by the Syrian government and its allies has reduced entire streets to rubble. Under this pressure, with hundreds of civilians dying around them, most of the rebels have given up. Ekram Dwame (ph) is the deputy prime minister for the Syrian political opposition and lives in Ghouta.

EKRAM DWAME: (Through interpreter) No one desires to leave their land, to leave their neighborhoods, to leave their nation.

SHERLOCK: But he says it got to the point where they faced surrender or death. They struck a deal to leave. Rebels and their families, thousands of civilians, are being sent to Idlib, a province in the north that's still very much at war. Most don't even know where they'll live once they get there. There is, though, one rebel group that's refusing to leave.

DWAME: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Jaysh al-Islam is the largest opposition militia in Ghouta. Dwame says they will agree to surrender to the regime, but they want to be allowed to stay and act as a sort of civilian police force in the area. Danny Makki is a Syrian-British local journalist who's watched the evacuations of eastern Ghouta from the government side. He says this rebel group made up of thousands of fighters has much more bargaining power than the ones who surrendered because they're keeping hundreds of Syrian soldiers as prisoners. He says the government has to listen.

DANNY MAKKI: If these prisoners are all shot and killed, that's going to have a very negative impact on what the government would call the liberation of Ghouta.

SHERLOCK: The government, he says, is desperate to end the rebel presence in Ghouta once and for all. But this last negotiation may not be so simple. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVAL CONSOLES' "UNTRAVEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.