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After 4-Year Siege, Rebels And Families Evacuate Darayya, Syria

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Syria, one city's long rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad came to an end today. Darayya, just outside Damascus, was one of the first places to participate in the 2011 uprising. NPR's Alice Fordham reports after four years and a strangling siege, the last civilians and fighters began leaving today under a truce with the regime.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Local anti-government activists posted the last videos on their Facebook page. Women and children gather to board green buses. Everywhere there's rubble and devastation, but they're sobbing as they prepare to leave. Under the terms of the truce which amounts to a surrender, rebels are allowed to head to opposition-held areas in the north.

Civilians must leave, too, and if they want to return, they have to undergo screening by the government. NPR reached a teacher who gave only her first name, Sawsan, because she fears the regime.

SAWSAN: (Through interpreter) We all must leave, even the youth and the children - everyone, everyone. Imagine - not one of us - no one will remain on this land. We'll all leave.

FORDHAM: Sawsan spent a year in prison for participating in demonstrations and says she doesn't dare go through the screening process. So she's fleeing north with the fighters. For her, this is the end of years of holding out under the regime's siege and airstrikes. She ran a school underground to avoid the bombs.

SAWSAN: (Through interpreter) Today I saw the students and families. It was four years I was with them and didn't leave them. I felt like I was saying goodbye to my own kids.

FORDHAM: Darayya has been surrounded and besieged by the government since 2012. Its population of maybe 200,000 dwindled to just a few thousand. For years, smuggling routes were intermittently open, and people grew some food. But in recent months, the roots were cut off and the farmland bombed. Last week a health facility there was also struck.

In 2011, Western officials went to Darayya for the funeral of an activist. One was then U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford. He says today is a sad day for Syria and the international community.

ROBERT FORD: Despite repeated calls from around the world for humanitarian aid to be allowed into besieged communities like Darayya, nothing ever got in, and finally people had to surrender. And they face a very uncertain future going forward.

FORDHAM: The first residents left today. Most of the fighters are set to leave tomorrow. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.