MOSCOW — Russian evacuees from war-torn Syria, mostly women and children with worried eyes, emerged Wednesday from two government airplanes into the predawn chill of the Moscow winter.
Several spoke of the mounting hardships in their adopted country—and of an uncertain fate in a motherland they have not known for years.
Many of the 77 evacuees had departed Russia a decade or more ago after marrying Syrian men who had gone to Russia to study or work and then returned home with loved ones. Now, their families were escaping danger in a Syria they had come to love.
Fears were fanned by declarations from armed forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad saying Russians were legitimate targets for violence because of Moscow’s unyielding backing of Assad during the almost two-year-long uprising against his rule. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting.
“Being Russian became a risk for the family,” said Natalia, a 59-year-old native of St. Petersburg who had lived in Syria for 35 years and was among those who arrived Wednesday at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. “There was sporadic shooting all the time and then the shelling and bombing began.”
Natalia, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, said she returned to Russia “as a bum with no place to live or go to, really.”
With routes to Damascus airport subject to rebel attack, the evacuees had been ferried by bus from the Syrian capital to neighboring Lebanon. Syrian soldiers guarded the buses on the overland route, a highway crowded with Syrians fleeing the chaos. The evacuees were then flown from Beirut to Moscow on airplanes provided by the Russian government.
The evacuees included 30 women, 27 children and 20 men, mostly Syrian husbands of Russian women.
The evacuation prompted conjecture that the Kremlin felt the end was near for the Syrian government, Moscow’s long-time ally. But Russian officials denied believing that Assad’s government faced imminent collapse and insisted that the airlift was not a prelude to a massive evacuation of the more than 30,000 Russian citizens believed to be residing in Syria.
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
“There are [evacuation] plans, as for any other country, but we are not talking about putting them into any action,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow. “The estimated current situation in Syria doesn’t require this.”
Most evacuees are expected to join relatives or friends in Russia, but about 20 will stay at a facility near Moscow until more permanent housing can be arranged, Col. Yuri Besedin, deputy chief of the Emergency Situations Ministry in Moscow, told reporters.
Some 8,000 Russian citizens are registered with the Russian Embassy in Syria, but experts say the numbers of unregistered Russians in Syria may exceed 25,000.
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.