BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Syrians were bused out of their towns on Friday in the first stage of a widely criticized population transfer that reflects the relentless segregation of Syrian society along political and sectarian lines.
The coordinated evacuations delivered war-weary fighters and residents from two years of siege and hunger, but moved the country closer to a division of its national population by loyalty and sect.
As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting Syria, more than 2,350 people were bused out of the twin rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and another 5,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kfraya in the country's north.
"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, a 19-year-old evacuee from Madaya whose parents stayed behind.
Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus' authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad's rule.
Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating the leaves off trees. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.
Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. They were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.
In a video posted on Facebook from one of the buses departing Madaya, a man identified as Hossam said: "We were forced to leave. We left our land, our parents, our memories, our childhood — everything."
Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines. The United Nations is not supervising the evacuations.
The predominantly Shiite towns of Foua and Kfraya have remained loyal to the Syrian government while surrounding Idlib province has come under hard-line Sunni rebel rule. Their populations will now find security under the government's outwardly secular authority.
Madaya and Zabadani, on the other hand, are believed to now be wholly inhabited by Sunnis, the consequence of six years of deft political maneuvering by Assad to steer what started as a broad movement against his authority into a choice between him and Sunni Islamist rule.
Playing on fears of al-Qaida rule, Assad's government showed leniency to the country's Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities while bringing the weight of its military against majority Sunni areas — especially Sunni pockets in demographically mixed areas, such as along the Lebanese border, where Madaya and Zabadani lie, and along the Mediterranean coast.
"They of course wanted to beat the Sunni rebels into submission," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "This has had the effect of driving them out."
Since 2011, 5 million Syrians have been made refugees and another 7 million have been displaced within the country's borders.
"The amount of population rearrangement has been tremendous in Syria," said Landis. The latest evacuations are "a drop in the bucket."
Madaya and Zabadani are the latest in a constellation of towns once held by the opposition around Damascus to submit to government rule. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said government forces entered Madaya after the evacuation Friday. Rebel gunmen were expected to leave Zabadani on Saturday.
Of the estimated 40,000 inhabitants of Madaya, some 2,000 elected to take the buses to rebel-held Idlib province rather than be subjected to the notorious government security services. They include former fighters, activists and medical workers, who have been targeted by the government with detention, torture and bombardment throughout the conflict.
"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 27-year-old medical worker.
Zabadani, however, is to be depopulated. The town's last 160 hold outs — all believed to be fighters or medical workers— will evacuate to Idlib on Saturday.
The fates of Fuoua and Kfraya are less clear. Most of the towns' combined population of 26,000 will leave or have already left for Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a government stronghold. But there were conflicting accounts of what will happen next.
According to Abdul Hakim Baghdadi, an interlocutor who helped negotiate the evacuations, government conscripts will stay and defend the towns. However, Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for the ultraconservative rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, said the two towns will be depopulated completely.
Friday's evacuations were notable because they were reciprocal — seldom during the war has there been an organized population swap between rebels and the government.
But there have been other cases of expulsion of the government's opponents to the country's contested northern provinces. The government maintains it is offering its opponents amnesty and the right to stay in their homes, but its brutal military campaigns have already pushed tens of thousands of people into Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
In the last year alone, the government has uprooted residents and gunmen from the towns of Moadamiyeh, Hameh, Qudsaya, Darayya and the Barada Valley around the capital, as well as once rebellious neighborhoods of Aleppo and Homs, Syria's largest and third-largest cities, respectively.
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 bused out of Aleppo at the end of last year, to rebel-held provinces in the northwest.
For the displaced, the war goes on. They face daily bombardment at the hands of the government's air force in Idlib province.
"I have conviction that we will be back," Hossam, the man from Madaya, said in the video.
Amer Burhan, the director of Zabadani's field hospital, said he expects the gunmen among the evacuees to resume fighting government forces in northern Syria.
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. The attack 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.