As Ghouta empties, Syrians try to spot loved ones on buses


Harasta (Syria) (AFP)

Mayss Ahmad scans busloads of evacuees exiting a bombed-out town near Damascus, determined to see her long-lost father and brother again after they spent years in rebel captivity.

She has spent sleepless nights waiting by the roadside near Harasta, after hearing rebels were releasing detainees as part of a deal with the regime to evacuate the battered town.

"I'm scared they'll come out at nighttime and won't find me. I'm staying here until they're freed," she says.

Ahmad travelled all the way from the coastal city of Tartus in the hope of seeing her father and brother, after they were detained by rebels more than four years ago.

Last month, Russia-backed regime forces launched a blistering assault on Harasta and the wider area of Eastern Ghouta, retaking large parts of it and forcing rebels into evacuation deals.

In Harasta, a Russia-brokered evacuation agreement mandated rebels release people they were detaining, and provided for hundreds of opposition fighters and members of their families to be bused out of the devastated town.

Ahmad last heard her brother and father were in good health around a month ago, but since she has had no news.

"My only hope now is God," says the young woman in her 20s, breaking down in tears.

For three days, she has been sleeping on the grass outside Harasta, living off food and drink that soldiers stationed in the area have shared with her from their rations.

Ahmad says opposition fighters abducted her, her father and brother after they overran the Ghouta area of Adra in December 2013, but she alone was released.

"My eyes have melted away from all the crying. My mother's heart is broken from waiting," she says.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have been reported missing in Syria since its civil war broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

- 'What's the point?' -

Both regime forces and opposition factions have been criticised by rights groups for indiscriminate attacks on civilians during the conflict.

As part of the evacuation deals reached for Ghouta, rebels have released just 21 people, including civilians and soldiers, in recent days.

Outside Harasta, Sabah Salloum has also been waiting nervously with her husband and daughter for the release of her son, Ahd, also kidnapped in Adra.

The 63-year-old, who wears a long black robe, has sworn not to wear any colours until she is reunited with him.

Suddenly, her daughter runs over to hand her a mobile phone.

"Ahd spoke, Ahd spoke," Salloum cries, after hearing her son's voice for the first time in more than four years, her loosely tied white headscarf slipping from her greying hair in the excitement.

"Not once did I lose hope of seeing him get out," she says.

In November 2015, a Britain-based war monitor reported rebels in Eastern Ghouta were using dozens of captives taken hostage in Adra as "human shields".

They put regime soldiers and civilians they were holding captive in metal cages, then placed them in public squares to prevent regime bombardment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Nearby, Aqeel Maeeta, 49, waits for his nephew, a soldier in the Syrian army, after he was taken prisoner by opposition fighters on the front line in the Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar.

A year ago, Maeeta and his family managed to get in touch with the soldier's captors.

"They asked for $5,000, ammunition and medicine," he says.

Maeeta slaps his thigh in frustration as he sees buses pull away into the distance carrying rebels and their families.

"What's the point of these deals, if my detained nephew's fate remains unknown but the kidnappers walk free?"