Tearful reunions, uncertain fates for Syrians fleeing Ghouta
HOSH NASRI - Syrian soldier Ayman al-Khatib scoured the crowds streaming out of Eastern Ghouta until he spotted his parents. Falling to his knees, he embraced them for the first time in seven years.
A year after the young fighter left his hometown in 2011 for compulsory military service, Ghouta fell to rebels -- putting Khatib and his parents on opposite sides of one of Syria's most ferocious battlefronts.
"We were separated for too long. Today, I got my soul back by seeing him again," said Khatib's 51-year-old father Zakariya, after the emotional reunion.
Zakariya and the rest of the Khatib family were among around 2,000 people who fled Ghouta on Friday through a "safe corridor" leading into government-held territory.
Tens of thousands are estimated to have fled Ghouta, using two access routes carved out by the Syrian army as part of its assault on the one-time opposition bastion on the outskirts of the capital.
"My joy today is two-fold -- the first is that I saw my son after long years of yearning," said Zakariya, clutching Khatib's face with both hands and checking it for any scars or wounds from fighting.
"The second joy is that I left oppression, injustice, and hunger."
The towns, villages, and lush agricultural fields that make up Eastern Ghouta were home to around 400,000 residents, but had been sealed off from nearby Damascus since 2013.
With all roads closed, Khatib was not able to attend the funeral of his brother, killed two years ago in the violence ravaging the suburb.
- Loved ones still inside -
Since February 18, the government's air and ground assault has recaptured 70 percent of Ghouta, and Khatib was battling alongside the troops as they pressed into his own hometown.
"I was flustered, there was a pit in my heart. On the one hand, I was scared for my parents. On the other, I wanted to do my duty," he said.
On Thursday, he managed to contact his family, who said they would try to flee their battered neighbourhood the following day.
"I looked for them in the massive crowds until I found them. I was like a thirsty man in the desert who finally found water," Khatib said.
Setting aside his rifle and grinning, he picked up three of his youngest relatives, born in Zabdin after he left and whom he had never met.
Similar reunions were taking place all along the dusty roadside, where displaced families were awaiting buses to take them to temporary shelters in Damascus.
Waving away food and bread, 60-year-old Zahraa Nasser sobbed uncontrollably on her nephew's shoulders, also an army fighter.
"He recognised me before I knew him -- his face has changed so much," said Nasser.
Just like Khatib, Aref Awad had left his hometown in Ghouta to serve out his compulsory military service in 2011, just as Syria's war was breaking out.
"Today, I'm getting a sense of the value of my participation in the battles," Awad said.
"My aunt was freed, but I still have loved ones inside," he said.
- 'We lost seven years' -
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, said 40,000 people had escaped on Thursday alone.
The influx has overwhelmed the temporary shelters set up on the edges of Damascus by Syrian authorities, who were bracing themselves Friday for new numbers.
"There will be a lot of new people arriving today. We're trying to get new places to shelter them and bring them basic services," said Ratib Adas, deputy governor of Damascus province.
In Adra, a government-held quarter north of Ghouta, some 3,000 displaced people were being hosted in a school-turned-shelter.
Some water and food had been distributed, but many had spent the night sleeping on the floor and long lines formed at the public bathrooms.
"We spent 27 days living in terror, fear, under bombing," said Yassin, a 35-year-old man who fled Hammuriyeh.
The recapture of his hometown this week by Syrian troops had allowed authorities to open up their second and much larger "corridor" for residents to flee.
Yassin was relieved to leave the bombing behind, but feared an uncertain future for him and his four children.
"I want to work to feed my family. I don't need someone to feed me," he said.
"We lost seven years of our lives. We want to start afresh. But can we? No."