Syrians fleeing Ghouta leave brutal siege, trapped relatives behind


Housh al-Ashaari (Syria) (AFP)

Weary, hunger-stricken families streamed out of Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, finally escaping after five years of brutal siege but leaving trapped loved ones and destroyed homes behind.

"We spent so long in the cellar before we were able to escape. Thank God, we're so happy to have left," said Haniya Homs, 30.

She spoke to AFP from the back of a pick-up truck as she tried to nurse her infant daughter.

"I don't have milk -- I'm just trying to distract my daughter so she doesn't cry," she said.

Residents of Syria's battered rebel-held Eastern Ghouta had lived under five years of crippling siege, without regular access to food, fuel, and medicine.

On Thursday, more than 12,000 of them poured out of a southern pocket of the enclave after advancing Syrian troops opened up a corridor through a key town.

Many of them tread the dusty road to regime territory on foot, carrying plastic bags stuffed with clothes and pushing strollers piled high with suitcases and rugs.

The Homs family had packed their belongings into a pick-up truck, but they were heartbroken over what they could not bring.

"We've left our homes, our livelihood, our farms," said Haniya's elderly mother from the front seat of the car, adding that two of her sons and three daughters were still trapped inside Ghouta.

"I don't know where they are. We left them in another basement -- I don't know anything about them now," she said.

- Daughter under the rubble -

Air strikes, rocket fire, and shells have slammed into Ghouta for nearly a month as the Syrian army pressed an offensive against rebels there.

Residents were forced underground. Hussein Samid, 40, said he had taken refuge with dozens of families in a makeshift shelter.

"We were around 66 families in the basement, with seven people per family," he told AFP, pausing on the roadside to smoke a cigarette.

They had spent nearly a month underground, desperate to get out, before hearing the corridor was open on Thursday morning.

"Those of us who were in the cellar got together and decided to leave, whatever the cost," said Samid.

At the government-controlled checkpoint, Syrian troops were distributed sandwiches, water, and juice to arriving civilians.

More than twenty green buses and several ambulances were waiting to transport people to temporary residential shelters.

Maryam, 20, said she fled on foot, with her tiny baby son clutched to her heart as she headed for safety.

"I left at 7:00am, walking until now and carrying my son in my arms," she said.

Ismail fled with five of his children, but one was missing.

"We left our house, our car -- I even left my daughter behind underneath the rubble," said the 46-year-old.

"I wasn't able to pull her out."