ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This week has been pivotal for the war in Syria. Just tonight, President Trump froze more than $200 million in funds for recovery efforts there. That was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. So now we're going to check in on some people there who we first met a few weeks ago. They all lived in the Damascus suburbs known as Eastern Ghouta. Hiba Aljazzar was hiding in a basement with her family.
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HIBA ALJAZZAR: I feel suffocated. Smell of death fill my chest. For last seven days, I lost my uncle. He is bleeding here in basement, and then he die.
SHAPIRO: The Syrian government attacked the area for weeks with Russia's help. Rebel groups fought back. Now all but one has surrendered, and the massive siege has become a mass evacuation. This week, Hiba Aljazzar and thousands of other people crammed into buses and left Eastern Ghouta perhaps forever.
ALJAZZAR: The journey was so, so difficult - 30 hours in the bus. I am so tired now. But I'm so happy. I am safe here now.
SHAPIRO: In our first conversation, Hiba Aljazzar told us she had to cancel her wedding. When she evacuated, she left behind most of her clothes and all of her possessions except for a few family photos and a book of prayers. But she brought her fiance.
ALJAZZAR: I will marry here with my fiance (laughter). I will do party, small party.
SHAPIRO: As hard as the journey was for her, it was even harder for another woman from Ghouta, an English teacher named Maram. She asked us only to use her first name out of fear that her relatives could be targeted. She and her husband fled with their two sons, a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old.
MARAM: I am a mother for two boys, Ahmed (ph) and Omar (ph).
SHAPIRO: When we first spoke, Maram told us she tried to keep her children distracted when the bombs started to fall. Now she, too, is in Idlib, 200 miles north of the only city she's ever called home.
MARAM: When the revolution started, I was 16. Now I am 23. I didn't do anything important in those years. I want a better life for my children. I want them to get to school. I want them to get toys, to see their grandparents - a normal life, just a normal life.
SHAPIRO: Her parents are in Egypt. Her brothers are in Sweden. Eventually she hopes her entire family can be reunited in Europe. But she says a piece of her will always remain in Eastern Ghouta.
MARAM: Not everyone get out. Not everyone evacuated. There are still families and people there.
MAHMOUD BWEDANI: I am pretty attached to my city. My name is Mahmoud Bwedani. I'm 20 years old. I'm a computer science student.
SHAPIRO: Weeks ago, Bwedani described trying to study between bombings and rocket attacks. Today he is still in Eastern Ghouta.
BWEDANI: It means everything seeing the faces that I know and walking the roads that I walked in and seeing the places I participated in the earlier demonstrations.
SHAPIRO: Photojournalist Firas Abdullah made the same decision to stay.
FIRAS ABDULLAH: This is my homeland, and this is my city.
SHAPIRO: He says he would only leave his homeland if it falls to Bashar al-Assad's government.
ABDULLAH: He is a criminal. And the world saw his crimes against the Syrian people. So we are against his dictatorship by our blood.
SHAPIRO: And Assad has not completely taken over yet. The war is in its eighth year now. So for a broader view of how the conflict in Eastern Ghouta fits into the war in Syria, NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So you have these mass evacuations as the government takes control of a greater swath of these Damascus suburbs. What's happening to the people who are still in this territory?
SHERLOCK: Well, so a lot of people have fled. About 50,000 people have fled to shelters that are run by the government. And then of course as you've just heard with these very powerful stories, rebels and their families and anyone who feared that they were wanted by the regime for supporting the opposition took this surrender deal and left for Idlib, this rebel-held province in the north. I spoke with Sam Heller, an expert from the International Crisis Group, and he thinks the regime may have offered the rebels this way out because in Idlib, they pose much less of a threat to the government.
SAM HELLER: When they arrive in Idlib from the Damascus countryside or from Homs, then their revolution is over because for many of them, their fight was conceptualized and justified in terms of their homes and their towns and their communities, their families. And then when they lose that, when that's over, I think some of them don't really have as compelling a reason to keep going.
SHERLOCK: So he thinks the displacement to Idlib actually saps the insurgency of motivation.
SHAPIRO: We've seen the government take control of more and more parts of the country that had been held by rebels, including now parts of Eastern Ghouta. Is this war basically over? Has Assad won?
SHERLOCK: Well, if the government takes the rest of Ghouta, it would be a major victory for them in that Assad can project a bigger sense of control. You know, these were thousands of men armed to the teeth just miles from the presidential palace. They were a constant reminder of the threat. With them gone, you know, that combined with the fact that he's had the upper hand in this war for months now, the immediate threat to his rule seems over.
But he's a long way from controlling the whole of Syria. The regime may have consolidated its control in the center of the country, but once it tries to take areas closer to the edges, it gets into more of a political challenge. That's because now so many foreign countries are involved in this war.
If you look at Idlib in the north, that's all bound up in an agreement between Turkey, which shares a border with that province, and Russia that supports the regime. And in the northeast, you have militias sponsored by the United States and a significant number of U.S. troops there. In fact, one U.S. service member was killed on Thursday. It's one of a few number of casualties for the U.S. since they became involved in Syria.
So overall, you have Damascus and its allies having to find a way to manage these very difficult situations if they want to retake the whole country. And they're much harder to manage than laying an area under siege and bombarding it as they did with Ghouta.
SHAPIRO: You know, those voices that we heard of people leaving Ghouta are just a few of the literally millions of people who've had to flee their homes. Tell us about the state of the humanitarian crisis and where these people will go.
SHERLOCK: Yeah, well, that is devastating. You've got half a million people estimated dead in this war so far. And then half the population of Syria has either been displaced from their homes, or they've become refugees abroad. And the future for a lot of these people just isn't clear. You know, there's been massive destruction in this conflict. In Raqqa, for example, in the northeast, the U.S. a led coalition that bombarded the city to defeat ISIS, but that's led to massive destruction. It's going to take a huge amount of time for people to be able to move back there.
And you've also got the problem of there's a lot of people wanted by the Syrian regime. In fact, there was a leaked list on an opposition website that said that it was a sort of intelligence list of people that are wanted that numbered up to 1.5 million people. Now, we can't confirm the veracity of that list, but certainly there's a lot of people who fear this government, who fear being imprisoned. That was the original reason for this war starting. People feared the dictatorship. They were tired of having people disappear into prisons without trial.
I spoke to one Syrian businessman from Damascus today. He said, all this war, all this violence, and nothing has changed. This government is going to keep using the same tactics it always did.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut bringing us the latest on the war in Syria. Thank you so much, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHAHIN ASNA'S "TUGHRA (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.