Syria's eastern Ghouta exodus a 'tableau of desperation'

The Eastern Ghouta is being emptied of people.

After five years of brutal siege, the endgame is near.

In the last month Syrian government forces have made dramatic gains, retaking 70% of this collection of towns, villages and farms to the east of Damascus.

It’s achieved that with the use of relentless Russian airstrikes and as we approached today the jets and helicopters could still be clearly seen circling above.

The bombing has continued in some areas, but a shaky ceasefire in other parts of the Ghouta has allowed tens of thousands of people to leave.

The Russian Ministry of Defence says 44,000 have fled so far. As we approached a crossing point near Hamouriyeh, the din of thousands of shattered civilians was audible above the distance thud of shelling.

What we found was a tableau of desperation; vast crowds of people pushing and shoving their way forward, waiting to board buses to leave, the sky smudged with black and grey smoke from the continuing bombardment.

At one point the Syrian Army soldiers attempted to hand out food and water, but it rapidly descended into utter chaos, as the crowd surged forward and set upon the truck containing the supplies.

In the end the soldiers fired into the air to quell the surge of hungry people. It was a pitiful scene.

Many of those we have talked to claim the rebels prevented them from leaving before now.

There may be some truth to that, but it may also be a line they know they must repeat to ensure their freedom once they cross into regime territory.

Many did seem genuinely relieved and happy to have escaped the siege which has lasted for some five years.

But most have lost everything, and left behind their pulverised homes.

The people leaving eastern Ghouta have been besieged for five years. Credit: Dan Rivers

This does feel eerily reminiscent of the final days of the siege of Aleppo which I witnessed 16 months ago.

The same green buses used to evacuate civilians, the same sickening sounds of artillery, the same indifference from the international community, which failed to stop the killing.

Most of those making the journey have lost their lives' possessions. Credit: Dan Rivers

Then there was a deal allowing fighters and their families to leave with some weapons for Idlib province.

I suspect the same offer will be made this time, as the rebel situation is untenable.

Once the Ghouta falls, it will be another key victory for President Assad, removing the threat of rebel mortar fire from central Damascus and allowing his forces to concentrate on other strategic prizes to the south and north.

The Syrian military has marched into most of eastern Ghouta in a month-long assault. Credit: Dan Rivers

But make no mistake, the end of the ghastly Ghouta siege won’t be the end of the war.

The Turks are about to lay siege to the Kurdish controlled city of Afrin in the north, and there is still plenty of rebel resistance in Idlib and north of Hama.

The war is now in its eighth year and continues to metastasize, spreading misery and suffering across a country that may never be reunited.