Rubble and painful memories in HomsComment on this story
Homs, Syria - Returning to her home in the war-ravaged Homs neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh, Huda found nothing where her house once stood but a pile of rubble and a lone cup from her coffee service.
She was among hundreds who were allowed to return Friday to inspect the damage to homes they abandoned two years ago rebels and government troops battled for control of the city.
In her mostly Christian neighbourhood, Huda, aged 45, and her husband dug through the rubble, desperately searching for the home that they could not believe the war had swept away.
“I came to check on my house, but I couldn't find it. I didn't find a roof, I didn't find walls. I only found this coffee cup, which I will take with me as a souvenir,” she said, her voice taut with grief.
Shells, shrapnel and bullets left no building untouched in the neighbourhood that rebels fought tooth and nail to defend, before they left Friday under an evacuation agreement with the government.
The famous Saint Mary of the Holy Belt church is unrecognisable. Its walls are blackened by fire, its chandeliers lie shattered on the ground, its icons and murals are missing, apart from one image of Jesus.
The steps leading up to the church, which local tradition says once housed a girdle belonging to the Virgin Mary, is covered with debris and rocks.
Most of those returning were dumbfounded by the sheer extent of the destruction, and many wept.
Jaqueline Fawwaz, a woman in her thirties, said “I had seen on Facebook that my home had been destroyed, but I couldn't believe it. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”
Wafa, who has been living in a Christian area southeast of Homs since fleeing two years ago, said “everything has been destroyed in my home. I went to the house of my parents-in-law and there were only a few things left that hadn't been broken.”
The shop windows of the now-deserted neighbourhood are shattered, and the walls of the buildings are riddled with bullet-holes. Some streets have been blocked off with huge mounds of sand.
Two burned-out tanks sit on the main street, surrounded by rusting scrap metal and destroyed road signs.
Teams of army sappers have also started clearing the city of explosives and deactivating bombs left behind, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said.
The governor has also allowed residents to return to the Bustan al-Diwan, Bab Hud and Warshe neighbourhoods in the city centre, though none of them can return home.
It will take weeks for electricity, water and basic services to be restored to the devastated neighbourhoods. Tarazi has invited the locals to form “neighbourhood committees” to help get their areas back on their feet.
One woman in her forties said “I have dreamed so many times of walking through Hamidiyeh, but what I see is very painful. The buildings are in a terrible state, but they are still our homes. I managed to recover a few things that belong to my children... souvenirs.”
Ayman and his sister Zeina, emerge ghostlike from their home, which was spared destruction and which they had refused to leave when 1,400 civilians were evacuated in February.
Ayman, in his fifties, looks emaciated. He says he has lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds) and his sister 18.
“It wasn't up to us to leave, but for the other residents to come back. That's the case today,” said Ayman, one of just 27 civilians to weather the whole choking 700-day siege.