Thousands of civilians and rebel fighters have started to evacuate a Syrian city after four years of bombardment, battles and siege that left its homes in ruins and surviving residents starving.
Ambulances, buses and lorries had lined up at the entrance to Daraya on Friday morning to transport those inside as part of an agreement between Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition groups.
Television footage showed families carrying their belongings and children through the rubble of destroyed buildings before being loaded on to coaches and driven out of the blockade.
The deal was struck late on Thursday evening following years of bombardment and siege, with the United Nations raising repeated concerns about the dire humanitarian situation inside.
Residents said they could no longer withstand the “unbearable” conditions, following the bombing of the town’s only hospital and regime takeover of farms that around 8,000 people relied on for food.
But there were concerns for the safety of those being evacuated by Syrian forces, with the UN saying it was not consulted or involved in negotiations.
The special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for assurances of protection and said any departures must be voluntary.
“The world is watching,” he added, condemning the “extremely grave” humanitarian situation in the city.
The surrender of rebels inside Daraya, a suburb to the south-west of Damascus, is a boost for President Assad and his followers, who will celebrate the removal of a threat on the fringe of the Syrian capital.
Desperate residents resorted to eating grass earlier this year as the government continued to refuse access to UN food convoys and humanitarian aid.
Humanitarian organisations repeatedly condemned the situation in Daraya and other areas besieged by both regime forces and rebels in Syria, but to little avail.
Save the Children described conditions as “dire” last week, while the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, said the last delivery of aid in June was followed by a new barrage of air strikes.
“Teams entering Darayya town in June were informed that many children had stopped talking due to shock, and that others suffered from hearing or visual impairment due to the explosions and to spending prolonged periods underground during regular bombardments,” he added.
Weapons used include barrel bombs – cheap munitions packed with explosives and shrapnel before being rolled out of helicopters – which were condemned for inflicting indiscriminate casualties in civilian areas by a UN Security Council resolution.
Large-scale massacres have also been reported, although there were conflicting reports of whether government forces or rebels were responsible for the killing of up to 500 residents in August 2012.
Recent footage of Daraya has showed an apocalyptic landscape with destroyed, damaged or deserted buildings.
Under the deal, the government is to grant safe exit to 700 fighters and their families and allow them to travel to the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, while around 4,000 civilians will be taken to a shelter in nearby Kesweh.
A Syrian Army soldier told the Associated Press that Idlib, which is largely under the control of the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, would “be their graveyard” as battles between different parties in the civil war continue.
“This is a precious moment for every Syrian,” he added.
Daraya was the location of some of the first protests against Assad during the 2011 Arab Spring and was brutally punished ensuing crackdown that sparked the Syrian civil war as people took up arms against the regime.
It is the latest rebel-held area to surrender to government troops following years of siege, following towns including Moadamiyeh and the city of Homs.
Resident Hussam Ayash said residents were “trying to absorb the shock” of suddenly having to leave.
“It’s difficult, but we have no choice,” he told the Associated Press. “Our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable.
“We withstood for four years but we couldn’t any longer.”
The evacuation came as the US Secretary of State arrived in Geneva for talks with the Russian foreign minister.
John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov were expected to discuss proposals to share intelligence and increase military co-ordination against Isis and extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
But tensions remain over Russia and Syria’s alleged bombing of civilian areas and targeting of rebel forces backed by the US-led coalition.
More than 5 million people live in “hard to reach” areas of Syria, according to UN figures, including almost 600,000 people live in 18 besieged areas – 15 by the government of Syria or its allies, and three by rebels.