Scores of homes in central Syria’s Qusayr are razed to the ground, its shops are smashed, and the smell of gunpowder still hangs heavy in the air.
After Syrian troops and Hezbollah took control of the symbolic insurgent bastion on Wednesday, Qusayr has become a ghost town, a witness told AFP.
In the central square, once a hub for the sale of agricultural and industrial products, bulldozers work to clear away the debris.
Smiling soldiers carry flags imprinted with the image of President Bashar al-Assad.
“By our blood and our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Assad,” they chant, as some fire shots into the air.
Nearby stand groups of fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, all armed and in military gear.
But Hezbollah loyalists who joined the army’s vast assault on Qusayr are not shown in footage broadcast by Syrian state television or the Lebanese party’s Al-Manar channel, the first to arrive on the scene after Qusayr’s fall.
The regime forces have taken over a dead town.
The once tall municipality building has been shattered, and on the main square the broken leaves of palm trees point to the ground.
The square’s watchtower has survived, but its bodywork is now blackened by flames.
As soon as the army claimed victory, its troops raised the flag over the clock.
A vehicle carrying boxes of food marked “Gift of the Syrian army” drives into Qusayr, followed by a pick-up truck carrying two families.
State television broadcast scenes showing a crowd of men arriving at the square. Viewers were told the footage was of “the return of residents to Qusayr”.
Most houses have been damaged by the fighting, and trees have been scythed onto pavements.
Shop windows are smashed and goods have been stolen in a town that was under army siege for a year.
On Qusayr’s streets, there is no sign of where the residents’ furniture or goods have gone.
Roads have been destroyed by army bombardment, gaping holes in the ground bearing witness to the ferocity of the air raids.
A church in the town is pockmarked with bullets, and a bridge at the entrance of Qusayr has been completely destroyed.
In the town’s hospital, there are bloodstains on the floor, as well as cotton and gauze used to treat the wounded.
Hundreds of wounded people were treated there, activists say.
“The injured have been evacuated from Qusayr for the (nearby town of) Eastern Bweida,” said one activist near Qusayr who identified himself as Jad al-Yamani.
“Some (rebel) groups took charge of evacuating the wounded, but it was hard.
“They evacuated the wounded on foot, and walked all night. The sun rose, and now some are waiting until nightfall to continue the walk,” Yamani told AFP by Internet link.
Even as the rebels and civilians fled, the army bombardments did not cease, said the activist.
The final hours before the army and Hezbollah took complete control of Qusayr were “unbearable”, said Yamani.
Insurgent “fighters were torn between being on the front lines and taking care of the women and the injured”, he said.