In the Bab Tuma district of Syria’s capital Damascus, Fadi Mayal dreams of returning home to the ancient Christian town of Maalula which was retaken by government forces this week.
But he and many other residents chased out when rebel forces including jihadists entered the town in September fear it may still be too early to go back.
The Syrian army recaptured Maalula on Monday, saying it had restored “security and stability” to the picturesque hamlet where 5,000 people lived before the war began in March 2011.
“I would love to go back and celebrate Easter there, but it’s still a bit early,” said Mayalm in the capital’s Christian district of Bab Tuma.
“I’ll go back, that’s for sure. My father is buried there,” added the 42-year-old building contractor.
“But there are still sleeper cells in Maalula.”
On Monday, as the army worked to recapture the town, three employees of Al-Manar, the television channel of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, were killed there.
An AFP correspondent who was in the town on Monday saw widespread destruction.
The Al-Safir hotel, which rebels had used as a base, was almost completely destroyed, its facade collapsed.
Downhill from the hotel, the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery was also damaged, its walls pierced by mortar rounds, and icons and other religious objects strewn on the ground inside.
Mayal said he saw his own house burning in a video that rebels posted on YouTube.
He suspects it was targeted because he had put up a picture of President Bashar al-Assad, but he is still eager to return to Maalula.
“Social life is different here in Damascus, and because of the crisis work is scarce,” he said.
Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced inside or outside the country by the conflict that began in March 2011.
More than 150,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
– Feast of the Cross –
Antoinette Nasrallah, a 35-year-old Maalula native wearing sunglasses and white jeans, said she felt “great joy” when she heard that the Christian town had been “liberated”.
“But I’m saddened by the destruction of the churches,” she added.
She too hopes to be able to return as soon as possible.
“We want to spend next summer there,” she said.
“Celebrating the Feast of the Cross there on September 14, as we do every year, has become a dream.”
Built into a dramatic cliff, and full of churches, convents and monasteries, Maalula is considered a symbol of Christian presence in the Damascus region.
Its residents are renowned for speaking Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.
“I hope with all my heart that the situation will go back to how it was before,” Nasrallah said.
“We’re afraid of forgetting Aramaic. We don’t know when we’ll be able to go back home.”
Maalula’s residents, who are mostly Greek Orthodox Christians, have found refuge in and around Damascus, which is around 55 kilometres (35 miles) from their home town.
Some are afraid of returning even after the army recaptured Maalula, traumatised by their flight and worried about the destruction to their homes.
“The houses were looted and some were burned,” said Diab Bahkit, a 62-year-old.
But others said they were ready to head back immediately, including one man who refused to give his name but said he wanted to “defend” his town and religion.
“I’m going back to Maalula as soon as possible — I won’t stay here a minute more,” he insisted.
He said fighters had tried to “destroy Maalula, especially its religious establishments”.
And a mother from the town, living in a single room in Damascus with her husband and four children, said she too was ready to return straight away.
“If they allow us, we’ll go back immediately,” the 50-year-old said, declining to give her name.
“Life is hard here. We’re living on aid, and it’s hard to come by,” she added.