The Syrian government and rebels evacuated more than 7,000 people from four besieged towns Friday in the latest coordinated population transfer in Syria's six-year-long civil war.
As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting the country, over 2,350 people were bussed out of the twin towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus. Another 5,000 people were evacuated on 75 buses from northern rebel-beseiged towns of Foua and Kfraya, according to Abdul Hakim Baghdadi, a pro-government interlocutor who helped negotiate the transfer from the latter two towns.
"Honestly, when we left Madaya, I felt sadness, anger, and sorrow. But now, on the road, I don't feel anything. I feel cold as ice," said Muhammad Darwish, a resident bussed out of Madaya, besieged by pro-government forces in the mountains west of the capital.
"There was no heating, no food, nothing to sustain our lives. We left so that God willing (the siege) may ease on those who remain," said Ahmad Afandar, 19, another Madaya evacuee. His parents stayed behind.
In a video sent to the Associated Press from one of the buses departing Madaya, 19-year-old Hossam said, "We were forced to leave, we left our land, our parents, our memories, our childhood - everything."
He signed off on an optimistic note, however, saying, "I have conviction that we will be back."
Critics have denounced the deal as a forced rearrangement of the country's population, with sectarian overtones. Through a deft policy of divide and conquer, President Bashar Assad has steered what started as a broad movement against his authority in 2011 into a choice between him and Sunni Islamist rule. Madaya and Zabadani are believed to now be wholly inhabited by Sunnis. The predominantly Shiite Foua and Kfraya have remained loyal to the Syrian government, while the surrounding Idlib province has come under hard-line Sunni, rebel rule.
The evacuation deal was brokered by Qatar, negotiating on behalf of the rebels, and Iran, on behalf of the government, in March. The United Nations is not supervising the evacuations.
When Friday's evacuations are completed, they will be the first in number of rounds stretching over two months to evacuate some 30,000 Syrians from besieged areas. Another 3,000 people are expected to be bused out of Foua and Kfraya on Friday evening, according to Baghdadi.
Madaya and Zabadani are the latest in a constellation of towns once held by the opposition around Damascus to submit to government rule. Pro-government forces have held the two towns under twin sieges for nearly two years, leading residents to hunt rodents and boil grass to stave off hunger in the winter months. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.
In Madaya, residents were given the option to stay and "reconcile" their status with government authorities. They will have to pledge allegiance to President Assad's government and swear off any dissent. Military defectors, draft-dodgers and reservists called up for duty will have between six months to a year to return to the armed services, or to apply for an exemption. Most of the estimated 40,000 residents will stay and accept the terms.
But at least 2,000 will not, according to Darwish, who was a medical worker in Madaya. They include former fighters, activists and medical workers who say they cannot redeploy with the military that once shelled their homes, and who are wary of the treatment they will receive at the hands of the government's notorious security services.
"It's more dangerous for a doctor than it is for a fighter to stay," Darwish, 27, told the AP when it became clear the evacuations would occur. He was forced to leave his university in the final year of his dentistry studies when he joined the popular movement to unseat President Bashar Assad six years ago.
The government has targeted medical workers with detention, torture and bombardment throughout the conflict, according to local medical workers, as well as reports from Physicians for Human Rights and Doctors Without Borders.
Similar amnesties were extended to other areas that have surrendered to the government, including Moadamiyeh, Hameh, Qudsaya and the Barada Valley around the capital, and formerly rebellious neighborhoods in Aleppo and Homs, Syria's first and third largest cities, respectively.
Zabadani, however, is to be depopulated. The arrangement has the town's last 160 hold outs — all believed to be fighters or medical workers — bussed out. In doing so, it faces a similar fate to the much larger Darayya, another Damascus suburb, which was depopulated following years of a crushing government siege and bombardment last August.
Most of eastern Aleppo was depopulated through force, as well. A U.N. inquiry said the evacuation of east Aleppo amounted to a war crime because it was coerced through the joint Russian and Syrian government campaign against the city's civilian infrastructure. More than 20,000 people were bussed out of Aleppo at the end of last year, to rebel-held provinces in the northwest.
Overall, tens of thousands of people have been uprooted to Idlib and Aleppo province, where they fear they are being gathered for a final government offensive to defeat them.
Amer Burhan, 50, the director for Zabadani's field hospital, said he expects the young fighters in Zabadani to join the fronts in northern Syria to resume fighting government forces.
The fates of Fuoua and Kfraya are less clear. Baghdadi, the negotiator, says conscripts will stay and fight to defend the towns. But Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for the ultraconservative rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, said the towns will be depopulated completely.
In Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran strongly warned the United States against launching new strikes on Syria, after it targeted an air base with a volley of missiles last week. It was in response to a chemical weapons attack on April 4 on a northern Syrian town that Washington blamed on Damascus. Almost 90 people were killed, including 27 children, according to the U.N.'s children's agency, UNICEF.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.