In December 2016, the Syrian government agreed to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians living in besieged east Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people were put on buses and sent elsewhere in the country. Journalist Zouhir Al Shimale, who has written frequently for Al Jazeera English, was one of the evacuees. He recalls the harrowing experience below.
I left my home and office in east Aleppo and said goodbye to everything, then left with my friends to the evacuation point. I saw thousands of people waiting to be transferred to the western countryside of Aleppo.
I stood and waited in the street with dozens of kids and families surrounding me. It was quite cold and raining on and off. After five hours of just sitting, all of a sudden we heard one Free Syrian Army fighter say the regime was attempting an offensive against east Aleppo.
It turned out that it was just a rumour to make people freak out. Many got scared; kids cried, and women as well. But they calmed down after they learned that it wasn’t a real threat.
To me, it was quite odd. The regime’s fighters, if they wanted to attack the remaining areas in east Aleppo and commit a massacre, there was no one to stop them. They have been killing us over the course of six years and no one has stopped them yet – so why would they stop now? They could attack us at any time.
Every hour was like a year, and questions circled in my brain about what might happen next. After the false alarm, we waited until we heard that many cars had made it out of the city.
When we left, there was shouting, and thousands of people were running. But they were running away from the evacuation point: It turned out that some people had been killed and others taken as hostages by regime forces. There was no hope for us to leave then, and we returned home miserable and exhausted after a horrible day.
We spent the next two days in our houses, assuming death was the only future for us. I cannot recall how we spent those days. We were suffering because of the weather and lack of medicine and food. There were people in the streets of Amria and Sukari, lying on the ground and waiting for the evacuation process to resume. They burned wood, clothes and plastic bottles to stay warm.
After long talks involving the Russians and rebel forces, it was agreed that the evacuation would start again. They said that it was serious this time and everyone would be evacuated. People started to gather again near the evacuation point the next morning and, after two hours, the buses started to come in around 11am, with the Syrian Red Crescent and Syrian Red Cross, as well.
It was complete chaos. People were running, rushing towards the buses. The Red Crescent and Red Cross were trying desperately to organise the crowds, but there was no way they would be stopped. Thousands of people were rushing to secure a seat for themselves and their families, since they did not know if they would have another chance to get out. I wanted to get on a bus too, but I waited until most of the people had got on and left.
We waited for the buses for 12 hours, until we finally boarded at around 8pm. We thought they would move right away, but it was the opposite – we waited for another 14 hours in the buses, throughout the night, in freezing weather. There were no blankets or any source of heat at all, just the clothes we were wearing. There was no food or water except what people had with them. If you left the bus, you would lose your seat, so you were forced to just be patient.
Normal buses can hold about 60 people, but there were around 85 on board. Babies were crying. Their mothers could not do anything but wait.
My head was full of thoughts: Would they ask us to get off the bus again? Would they take us to another area at night and kill all of us? I will never be able to forget that night.
Many were not lucky enough to get on the buses, and spent the night in the street, instead. They were burning wood to stay warm, but it wasn’t enough. It snowed lightly during the night, and in morning, the street was coated in ice. No one could do anything but wait.
Around 8am the next morning, the buses took off very slowly, heading towards the western Aleppo countryside. As we passed Ramosseh, where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place, we saw devastated buildings and wrecked cars all around.
At a checkpoint, a soldier with a Lebanese accent told us that if any of us would like to return to the government-controlled areas, they would be welcomed and taken care of. However, after he left, many of the evacuees mocked him and his claim that they would be safe. Many of the people in the bus had been in the incident that took place days ago, when the people supposed to be evacuated were fired on instead. They said the government forces would kill us if we went to their side. One of them said that their promise of safety just means providing us a safe path to the nearest jail.
After the soldier left, everyone became comfortable. The next two checkpoints were operated by the regime and Russian soldiers. We saw a female soldier standing at the checkpoint, observing the evacuation process.
After arriving in the western countryside of Aleppo, thousands of people got off the buses and got food and water. Many people were crying and hugging each other, because they were now out of hell. Several of my friends were waiting for me. We gave each other many big hugs, and then we moved to rebel-controlled Idlib city.
It is quite strange, in a way, that I know almost no one here. Even though I am with some friends now, the people and the surroundings aren’t what I am used to. In a way, it feels worse, realising that I will stay in this strange place with no way back to Aleppo. It’s still difficult to believe, but I will adapt to it gradually.
Thousands of other people are spread out in camps all over the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, with no water, electricity or heating. But they are surviving so far, despite the cold, the snow and the rain.
It seems that the government wants to displace the residents of rebel-held areas, settling people far from their homes and changing the demographics of these areas.
Although the situation in east Aleppo is calmer now, there have been bombs and clashes in other areas, and we will see harsh days in the future if there is no serious solution to end all of this. The fighting will grind on for a long time, and more and more civilians will die or be displaced – yet we cannot do anything but wait.