After painful wait, civilians evacuated from Syria's besieged Ghouta


Wafideen Checkpoint (Syria) (AFP)

After a year-long wait, Syrian amputee Ratib Sheikh Bakri left the besieged Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave on Tuesday for medical treatment in Damascus that he hopes can save his second leg.

He was among some 150 people bussed out of Ghouta in the first evacuation of civilians from the rebel-held zone since Syria's government began a fierce assault three weeks ago.

The area's 400,000 residents have lived under a devastating siege for five years that has made food hard to access and left hospitals unable to cope.

On Tuesday, civilians including wounded were bussed out of the rebel-held town of Douma -- Ghouta's largest -- by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and into government-held territory.

After reaching the regime-held Wafideen checkpoint on the edge of the rebel enclave, 56-year-old Ratib burst into tears.

His right leg had been amputated near his hip and he had awaited medical evacuation from Douma for a year and a half to seek treatment for the left.

"I am coming to be treated in Damascus before my second leg goes too," he said, wiping his eye with a tissue.

But his three daughters and two sons were still trapped inside Douma, under siege and bombardment.

Ratib said the living conditions were "dire" in Ghouta, but that he now has access to better food.

"They just brought me a falafel sandwich... I haven't smelt tahina for five years".

- Saying goodbye -

On Monday, the United Nations said more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, were in urgent need of medical evacuations from Ghouta.

The area has been facing a Russian-backed government offensive that has killed more than 1,100 people and wounded thousands more.

It has split the enclave into three isolated opposition-held pockets.

Jaish al-Islam, the rebel faction that holds Douma, said Monday it had negotiated a deal with government ally Russia and the UN to bring sick and wounded residents out of the town.

Inside Douma on Tuesday morning, residents could be seen lugging duffel bags and suitcases to a group of waiting buses and ambulances.

Red Crescent workers checked their names against a prepared list, as women and children waved goodbye to a crowd of male relatives who would remain in the town.

An AFP correspondent there saw 30 sick and wounded among them, including Safaa, a mother with a liver condition, and her four children.

A thin girl in a pink sweater looked out the window briefly with nervous, almond-shaped brown eyes, before other children clambered over her to bid farewell from the bus.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Tuesday's operation brought out 150 civilians from Douma.

A Syrian military source on Tuesday gave a similar number, saying a total of 24 men, 44 women and 78 children were evacuated. The source said 10 sick people were among them.

- 'Hell on earth' -

Another military source had earlier told AFP "no fighters" would be evacuated as part of the convoy.

At Wafideen, an AFP reporter saw crowds of evacuated people arriving to a makeshift collection point at a school.

They were wearing multiple layers of winter coats, as if trying to pack as many clothes with them as possible.

Fariza held her tiny grandson Mahrus in her lap, among dozens of others in the school courtyard.

Wrapped in a grimy pink and blue blanket, the baby's eyes were bulging and his head malformed. A breathing tube snaked its way out of his nose.

Mahrus suffered from meningitis, said Fariza, and was hoping to get medical treatment in Damascus. Mahrus's mother had not been able to leave with him.

Some 125,000 children are trapped in Ghouta, many of them acutely malnourished, warned the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore on Tuesday.

"Is it not tantamount to a monstrous indifference to the suffering of children that Security Council resolutions for ceasefires are flouted?" Gilmore asked.

Abdo Tohmeh, 60, left his family behind in Douma to accompany his sick neighbour to the capital.

"It was a miracle we left. It was hell on earth," he told AFP.