They left by the thousand, the jihadis of Ghouta and their wives and children and parents. Many were still armed – Kalashnikovs over their shoulders, watched by the Russian soldiers in steel helmets and flak jackets – and they prayed, some of them, on waste ground, beneath leafless trees, next to the smashed metal wall of a broken factory behind which their chadored wives were waiting.
There were dozens of tourist buses waiting for these armed men, these Islamists whose faces had never appeared before us in past weeks – those of them who didn’t cover their faces with scarves. So they climbed aboard air-conditioned Pullmans with “Happy Travel” and “Express Tours” and other preposterous advertisements on the side. One of the vehicles even had “Very Important Personae” stencilled across the back window in English and Latin. Weirder, it could not have been. But sinister, too.
There were shells still thumping across the other side of Ghouta – if these Jaish al-Islam men and their families were leaving, others were not – and one of their conditions for evacuation were no photographs, no interviews with the press, no publicity, rules that were disregarded with care. The Islamists we could now see leading his very young wife and two children onto a tourist bus. And there was so many of them.
I watched them stand beneath those shattered trees to pray. They had long scraggly beards, most of them uncombed, cheap track suits, dusty plastic sandals. I suppose it was a sort of political statement. They had been directed by God to fight and thus prayed to God even when they had surrendered – up to a point – and abandoned their holy battle, and thus achieved a kind of religious victory in maintaining their faith. But really? What honour was left if you must trust yourself and your Islamist families to the godless Russians and their secular allies in Syria?
For this was Moscow’s operation, be sure of that. Russian military police officers monitored every bus, every departure from two big Russian military trucks; a general and three of his officers – Russian flashes on their sleeves, big steel helmets, weapons so new they reflected the sun – moved among us and the Syrian troops and the armed evacuees. The buses had black windows and so we saw many of these Islamist men and their very young, chadored wives and their children, through a glass darkly.
They were Syrian, almost all of them, and many born in Ghouta, so they were leaving for the central province of Idlib, possibly for the first time. There they would be met by other militia who would not have much time for the resistance men of Ghouta. I stared in through the windows. There was a woman holding a little girl who broke free and leaned on the window to look at us. She could not have understood the Syrian history to which she was witness. The face at the window. That is what she was.
But of course, we also had the old question: where did they come from, these men in black clothes and beards and rather battered-looking Kalashnikovs? Why had we not seen them before? Some of their colleagues, still amid the ruins behind us, fired off round after round of ammunition – “using up their bullets before they leave,” one Syrian soldier muttered dismissively – but these men were leaving by the thousand. By nightfall, I would count another hundred buses waiting for them.
That fearful footage we had seen on social media, night after night, circulated around the world on television news, genuine film, to be sure but – while containing the suffering civilians, the wounded children, the real civilian corpses – never showed us the men who held weapons and machine guns and mortars and who fired back into eastern Damascus and who were now parading before us, a dozen at a time, to leave the towns and villages they had helped to destroy. Were the anonymous cameramen of this hell forbidden to show its defenders? And if so, why did they not say so? And why did we not say so?
And there was that little matter of their children. All children are civilians. And all children can be refugees. But those who had configured the “deconfliction” of eastern Ghouta and divided up the buses, had also decided who would be the child refugee of the Islamist fighters – en route to Idlib with a Russian escort – and who would be the other children, equally innocent, who would go to the refugee camp near Adra. All children are equal. Are they not?
But of one thing, as I said, there could be no question. This was a Russian show. The Russian army was constructing this vital piece of theatre, walking between the refugee buses and the fighters’ buses and noting the numbers; and – who could doubt this? – a decade or two ago, these might have been UN peace-keepers, blue berets rather than Russian helmets, in eastern Ghouta. In another war – in another age – they might even have been American ‘peace-keepers’. But in the Trump-Putin era, all has changed. The Russians are now the peace-keepers, the conferences at Astana a substitute for the UN Security Council. When Russia decided to end the vicious little war in Ghouta, there would be no debates, and there were no irritating vetoes. Opponents were cajoled or bombed into agreement. Promises were made – and largely kept, it seems, at least until the Islamists reach Idlib and the Syrians decide that they must all leave again for Turkey or, via the endless reconciliation committees, for their original, smashed homes.
Thus the Russians can say they have plans for peace rather than plans for war – the result of the Trumpian Middle East non-doctrine – and observe the detritus of towns and cities blasted by their Syrian allies and the regime’s enemies. After dark, those Russian soldiers were still on duty, their computer screens glowing from inside their military lorries as the fighters who had not yet left fired more ammunition into the sky. Red and white, the tracers soared over us, the Syrian soldiers tired and sometimes exhausted but well aware that victory, here at least, would be theirs.
At one point, a Syrian truck with smoked black glass, hooting a constant wail, soared past the buses, a middle finger pointed upwards from the nearest window. The Islamist fighters ignored it. Oddly, they were prepared to talk, briefly, when a Syrian state television journalist clambered onto one of their moving buses with a video-recorder. A man with dark glasses said he and his comrades had fought for freedom. “We did have freedom,” the reporter responds (a predictable regime line) on the tape. “I could drink, I could go to the mosque, I could do whatever I wanted to do and nobody stopped me but now we have a military emergency that came about because of you and your demands for freedom.”
Another man, cowled in the background, had apparently disagreed with his comrades, saying he did not want to go to Idlib, that he had not been consulted, that the fighters had not been given the same food as its leaders, even during the battles. He was later questioned by the man who demanded “freedom”. But the propaganda war in Syria is fought as ferociously as the conflict with guns. The glass may be shattered but it is as thick as concrete.