Thousands of Syrian civilians were preparing to leave the long-besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya on Friday after rebel forces there were forced to surrender under the pressure of starvation.

Once the symbolic heart of Syria’s 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the suburb had become synonymous with the government’s unsparing war on the armed opposition and civilians living under its control.

In photographs shared by local activists, dozens of families could be seen dragging suitcases through the shattered streets. In one image, a child rested on a stretcher in the rubble, waiting for evacuation by government forces.

The agreement, announced Thursday, may come to be seen as a turning point in the battle for southern Syria, marking the beginning of the end for an armed rebellion that has clung on in the Damascus suburbs for five years.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, reported that 700 militants would go to the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib, taking only light weapons with them, and that civilians would be taken to “reception centres.”

Some residents voiced alarm about the latter arrangement, wondering whether they would suffer the same fate as hundreds of activists and rebel fighters who disappeared into government prisons after a similar negotiated surrender in the western city of Homs in 2014.

“The people here are so scared to leave,” said Malik Tifai, an activist still living in the suburb who was reached by telephone. “The regime’s guarantees are not guaranteed.”

A woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity described her fears through thick sobs. “What will happen to men of military age like my husband?” she said. “We cannot live without him, but will the regime really let us all go? I cannot believe it. They made us suffer so much. Why would they stop now?”

Perched just a few miles from Assad’s presidential palace, rebel-held Darayya had long defied expectations of surrender that began when government forces blockaded the area in 2012. Only one food delivery by the United Nations has reached the district since then.

In a statement Friday, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army denied that the evacuation constituted a surrender. “The only surrender today is the ongoing surrender of the international community to the regime’s incessant campaign of war crimes,” Maj. Issam al-Reis said. “The FSA in Darayya remains undefeated, they will move to Idlib where they will continue to serve the Revolution.”

The first evacuation buses to arrive Friday morning were swarmed by government soldiers bellowing pro-Assad slogans. At least nine packed vehicles were believed to have left by midafternoon, while dozens more, including several Red Crescent and U.N. vehicles, waited at the suburb’s entrance for permission to enter.

In a sharply worded statement, the United Nations’ Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said he became aware of the Darayya agreement “overnight” and that the United Nations “was not consulted or involved in the negotiation.”

“It is imperative that the people of Darayya are protected in any evacuation that takes place and that this takes place voluntarily,” he said. “The whole world is watching.”

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