BEIRUT (AP) — Weeping, hobbling on crutches or dragging suitcases, hundreds of survivors of a devastating government bombardment and siege left the last sliver of opposition-held Aleppo on Thursday, an evacuation that sealed the end of the rebellion’s most important stronghold and was a watershed moment in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war.
For the opposition, it was a humiliating defeat. A smiling President Bashar Assad called it a historic event comparable to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran.
A U.N. official described it as “a black chapter in the history of international relations.”
Traumatized residents filtered out to green government buses on a chilly day through Aleppo’s streets lined with flattened buildings. Years of resistance were stamped out in a relentless campaign over the past month that saw hospitals bombed, bodies left unburied and civilians blown apart by shells as they fled for safety.
“We struggled for six years. We were supposed to be the ones to get them out, not them us,” said one tearful woman who held a baby, speaking in a video posted online by an opposition activist.
She explained that it wasn’t the bombardment that forced them out.
“We left because we feared for our honor from the regime,” the unidentified woman said.
Under a surrender deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, tens of thousands of residents and rebel fighters are being evacuated to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process likely to take several days.
They said it was too dangerous to go to government-held areas, where they faced potential retribution from security services alleged to carry out arrests and torture of opposition sympathizers. Many are of fighting age and don’t want to be drafted into the military.
“We slept in the streets. It’s shameful,” a unidentified man said in an opposition video. “Where is the world?”
Leaning on crutches and sobbing uncontrollably, he described fleeing the bombardment.
“You don’t know if it’s an airplane or shelling or rockets. You never know,” he added.
Eastern Aleppo rose in revolt against Assad in 2012 and battled since then with the western, government-held part of the city in one of the most horrific and destructive fronts of the civil war.
The rebels’ hold in Syria’s onetime commercial powerhouse was a major point of pride, and at times it seemed an invulnerable part of what was once a growing opposition-held patch of territory in the north.
But government forces finally surrounded eastern Aleppo and then battered it to pieces. The air and ground campaign by Syrian troops — backed by Russian warplanes and forces from Assad’s regional allies — relentlessly wore away at the enclave.
Hundreds of civilians were killed, and tens of thousands fled to government-held areas. The pocket was reduced to a few blocks packed with the bloodied, exhausted and demoralized but also die-hard opposition forces.
For Assad, the victory puts most major cities under his control and raises hopes for the beginning of the end of the revolt.
“History is being made,” an upbeat Assad proclaimed in a video on social media.
“What is happening is bigger than congratulations,” he said, calling it comparable to Christ’s birth and the revelation of Islam’s holy Quran to Muhammad.
Twenty buses with Assad’s picture displayed in the windshields and 26 ambulances carried the civilians, including more than 50 sick or wounded, from the devastated Ameriyeh neighborhood. They drove through government-held districts to Rashideen, a rebel-held area outside Aleppo, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian state media said.
Hundreds of government supporters cheered the convoy on as it crossed through government territory.
Referring to the rebels, the state’s SANA news agency said 951 “terrorists and their families” were evacuated.
An estimated 70,000 civilians are waiting to be evacuated, said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, the head of the forensics department in the enclave. He added that a “tremendous crowd” showed up at the buses Thursday.
Some of the evacuees burned belongings that they couldn’t take with them, said Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher and an opposition activist still in eastern Aleppo.
“Maybe most of them are happy that they are going to safety. Some of them are angry that they are leaving their city. Some people want to leave ASAP,” he said. “As for me, I will try to leave Aleppo as late as possible.”
Online video showed hundreds crowding around the buses at the departure site. Many lugged suitcases or dragged bags behind them. Fires were kindled in barrels for warmth as the wounded sat in wheelchairs and others hobbled on crutches.
Photos circulated online showed the graffiti on destroyed buildings: “Love will bring us back. 15/12/2016,” and “Under each building destroyed, a family is buried with its dreams. Bashar and his allies buried them.”
Once the evacuees arrived in rural areas, opposition gunmen and locals gathered and chanted, “God is great” — less in defiance than in gratitude for their survival.
A Syrian opposition figure said local councils in Idlib and Aleppo provinces have been trying to find housing for them, but he said many will have to stay in camps.
Turkey, which supports the opposition, promised to treat the wounded, according to Brita Haj Hassan, a member of Aleppo’s local council, speaking from exile in Brussels.
Syrian state TV said a separate convoy of 29 buses and ambulances moved to Foua and Kefraya, two nearby villages loyal to the government, to evacuate the sick and others who were subjected to a siege by rebels.
Iran had demanded to tie the evacuations from Foua and Kefraya with Aleppo’s.
Syrian rebels say any evacuation of those villages is supposed to be accompanied by one from Zabadani and Madaya, two besieged opposition-held towns west of Damascus, according to an agreement between the government and rebels. The U.N. denounced that deal.
In Geneva, U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator for Syria Jan Egeland said the international body was had been locked out of the evacuation plans and pro-government forces have blocked some aid vehicles from entering rebel-held districts.
An estimated 50,000 people have fled eastern Aleppo, he said.
“It took 4,000 years to build Aleppo — hundreds of generations. One generation managed to tear it down in four years,” Egeland said.
“We feel all strongly that the history of Aleppo through this war will be a black chapter in the history of international relations,” he said, adding that the city “gave to world civilization, and world civilization was not there to assist the people of Aleppo when they needed us the most.”
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed.