MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dozens of Russians arrived home on Wednesday after fleeing Syria, relieved to be escaping the deprivation and horror of civil war but worried about an uncertain future back home.
“The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We’ve been left without money, without light, without water,” Natasha Yunis, who ran a beauty salon in her adopted home of Damascus after meeting her Syrian husband, said of rebel advances on the capital.
“A bomb exploded near our house ... The children hid. Of course it was horrible,” said Yunis, giving her age as about 60.
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main protector in an uprising against his rule, but its Middle East affairs envoy was quoted as saying last month that the rebels could defeat Assad and that Moscow was preparing evacuation plans in case they were needed.
It organized two flights to evacuate 77 men, women and children from the Middle East country, where the United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in 22 months of bloodshed. Both flights arrived in Moscow early on Wednesday.
The evacuations are the strongest signal yet that Russia may be preparing for the possibility of Assad’s fall, but Moscow insists the operation is not the start of a mass exodus of tens of thousands of Russian citizens living in Syria.
Alfred Omar, 57, a resident of Syria married to a Russian woman and dressed in an jacket from Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, said Moscow’s policies had begun to threaten its own citizens inside the country. His lower lip trembled as he spoke.
“It’s dangerous there for Russians. If the Free Syrian Army understands that a person is Russian, they’ll immediately cut off their head, because they (are seen to) support Assad’s regime,” he said.
Moscow has protected Assad from three consecutive U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to force him out or press him to end the bloodshed.
Omar said he had left Syria because he did not want to support one side or another.
“I am a simple citizen how can I change anything,” he said on arrival at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
A spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry, which organized the flights from Beirut to Moscow, said no more flights were planned to bring Russians home. Russia has also said it has not changed its policy on Syria.
But military officials have been quoted as saying that warships in the Mediterranean Sea for naval exercises may also be used to help evacuate Russians.
Many of the Russians in Syria are women who married Syrian men over several decades, during which many families in Syria’s elite sent their children to Soviet schools.
Others include employees in state companies that are still operating in Syria.
For most of the people who arrived at Domodedovo airport in the early hours of Wednesday, it was a hard goodbye to a country with which Moscow forged strong ties in the Soviet era.
“It was very hard to decide to leave, but we lost everything so we decided to come. The opposition is already in the region where we were living,” said Natasha Yunis’ daughter, Anjelika Yunis.
Her three children stood next to her, visibly exhausted by what she described as a nearly 24-hour trip from Damascus to Beirut, a departure point that passengers said was chosen because of the danger around the Damascus airport.
She said she was going to St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, where she and her mother had acquaintances.
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll try to find some work. Maybe take a loan out and start a business,” she said dressed against the cold in a long black coat.
Despite the evacuations, Moscow has not given any indication that it is prepared to abandon its policy of opposing Assad’s exit from power being a precondition for any political solution.
Russia was Syria’s top arms supplier in 2010, with nearly $1 billion in sales, and another $500 million expected for last year, said Moscow-based defense think tank CAST.
Russia also maintains a naval maintenance and supply facility at the Syrian port of Tartous. There was no indication that Moscow was withdrawing any of its military personnel there or diplomats.
Reporting by Thomas Grove, Editing by Timothy Heritage and David Brunnstrom