Residents of Maalula returned to the historic Christian town on Sunday to mark Easter, glad that the Syrian army freed it from rebel control but pained at the widespread destruction.
As they strolled into the picturesque town, flanked by reporters on a government-organised tour, President Bashar al-Assad also paid a rare visit less than a week after his troops recaptured Maalula.
Ruba, a Christian woman in her 20s, cast her eyes over the destruction of her one-time home and said: “Maalula is ours again even though it is destroyed.”
“Our Easter celebration this year is incomplete,” she said.
For her and other Christians in Syria there is little to celebrate, with some having lost loved ones during the three-year conflict.
“You can replace stones, but you can’t bring people back to life,” said Ruba.
Elias Zakhem, a university student, agreed.
“Our feelings are of joy and pain at the same time. We came home and found everything destroyed, but God willing, we will return and rebuild. This is our town.”
One of the Middle East’s oldest Christian settlements, Maalula was caught up in Syria’s brutal conflict because of its strategic location in the Qalamun mountains.
Cut into the cliffs of rugged mountains, it lies 55 kilometres (35 miles) north of Damascus and near the Lebanon border in one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the war so far.
Five months into a regime offensive against rebel positions in Qalamun, the army backed by its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah has taken over most opposition-held towns and villages there.
– Nothing spared –
The damage caused by fighting has left indelible marks on Maalula, where some residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Houses have been burned down, windows shattered and broken glass carpets the ground, said an AFP correspondent who toured the town on Sunday.
Religious sites were by no means spared.
At the orphanage of Saint Takla monastery, where a group of nuns were kidnapped by jihadists and held three months before being freed, children’s clothes were strewn across the floor, books thrown off their shelves and plates shattered.
Dalal, a mother of three, tearfully looked at the damage caused to the place she called home for 14 years until fighting pushed her family out.
“Even the walls have been torn down. They broke the children’s digital piano. The toys, even they are gone,” she said.
She recalled the “wonderful” Easter celebrations they had before the war when the town would be decked in flowers and other decorations.
Dalal said she came alone without her children for fear they would be heartbroken by the devastation.
“I want them to preserve in their memory the beauty that this house and this town once had. I don’t want them to come now, to be shocked by all this.”
Sunday’s visit was organised by the authorities, and troops were deployed in the main square backed by pro-regime fighters.
As the returning residents took in the damage, Assad made a rare appearance to tour the town along with religious leaders, but the AFP correspondent did not see him.
State television said Assad visited Saint Sergius and Bacchus monastery damaged by “terrorists” and showed pictures of the president.
“Even the worst terrorists cannot erase our heritage and civilisation,” he was quoted as saying, using the regime’s terminology for rebels seeking his overthrow.
“Like other Syrian sites of heritage and civilisation, Maalula will always resist in the face of the barbarity and obscurantism that are targeting the country.”
Assad’s regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of religious minorities against a revolt led by foreign-backed extremists, a notion his opponents dismiss as part of a divide-and-rule strategy also aimed at deterring Western support for rebels.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi told reporters in Maalula “we in Syria want peace… and to live side by side.”
Christians make up some five percent of Syria’s population and have largely avoided taking sides in the conflict that erupted in March 2011.
More than 150,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian conflict, and half the population forced to flee their homes.