Syrians streamed back into the ruins of the Old City of Homs on Saturday, picking through the remains of their homes and trying to come to terms with the destruction.
Thousands of people walked through the devastated streets of their former neighbourhoods, some appearing shellshocked by the scale of the damage.
The influx came a day after the last rebel holdouts left the area under an evacuation deal that handed the Old City back to the government, granting it a symbolic victory.
The pullout leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of Homs, Syria’s third city and once dubbed “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
On Saturday, Homs provincial governor Talal al-Barazi declared the evacuated areas safe.
“Barazi announced that the Old City of Homs is safe and free of weapons and insurgents thanks to the sacrifices of the Syrian army,” state news agency SANA said.
Residents quickly returned to see what remained of their homes, and retrieve whatever they could.
Many were visibly distressed by the extent of the destruction, with every building bearing scars from the conflict that wracked the central city once home to 1.6 million people.
Rebel forces in the Old City were besieged for nearly two years before the deal to evacuate, and regime troops shelled the area almost daily throughout.
– ‘Horrible destruction’-
“I promised my wife that I would bring her sewing machine, and that’s what I’m doing,” said Jamil Habib, a retired teacher aged 77.
He wept as he surveyed his house — rebels had punched large holes in the walls so they could move between buildings.
“The destruction is just horrible,” said 37-year-old Rima Battah, in the Hamidiyeh district of the Old City.
“My husband went to our house yesterday and found it destroyed. We came back together today to get our things,” she added, gesturing to five large bags of possessions.
Dozens of families were doing the same, gathering whatever could be salvaged.
Nawal al-Masri, 51, had worked in the Old City as a seamstress and returned to check on her former workshop.
“Everything is destroyed, all the sewing machines have been stolen, the fridge has been stolen, even the generator,” she said.
“I worked here for 30 years,” she added.
“There’s nothing left except one basket, in which I found a single pair of scissors.”
She said she planned to file a request for compensation from a $588,000 (427,000-euro) fund set up by the local chamber of industry.
Barazi told SANA he was forming committees of residents to assess the damage.
– ‘We will rebuild’ –
Some of those returning were already looking ahead to reconstruction.
“Like in Vietnam, or Japan, or Europe, we will rebuild after the war,” said Abu Rami Abaebu, a trader.
“It’s as if there had been an earthquake, but now it’s over.”
State media interviewed returning residents who expressed their gratitude to the army and Assad.
They filmed inside an Armenian church compound, part of which the rebels has used as a headquarters and field hospital.
In the courtyard, rebel graffiti remained, reading “Down with Assad,” and “The days are numbered, the end is coming”.
The evacuation deal involved the release of hostages held by rebels elsewhere in Syria, and the entry of aid to two towns under opposition siege.
The rebels were allowed to leave with some weapons and granted safe passage to opposition-held territory elsewhere in Homs province.
But the government has claimed the deal as a victory, less than a month before a presidential election expected to return Assad to office.
Campaigning starts on Sunday for the June 3 election in which Assad is one of three candidates.
The others are Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, an independent MP from the northern city of Aleppo, and Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri, a Damascus businessman.
Elsewhere, the Observatory said more than 100,000 civilians have fled the eastern province of Deir Ezzor because of fierce clashes between rival jihadist groups since the end of April.
And in Aleppo, residents have gone without water for a week after the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front cut supplies into rebel and regime-held areas of Syria’s second city, it added.