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Damascus - 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 shell-shocked 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 the central city, once dubbed “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
On Saturday, Homs provincial governor Talal Barazi declared the evacuated areas safe, after troops swept for explosives.
“Governor Talal 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 was left behind.
Many were visibly distressed by the scale of destruction, with rubble strewn across streets and every building bearing signs of the conflict that wracked the city.
Rebel forces in the Old City were under government siege for nearly two years before the deal to evacuate, and regime troops shelled the area almost daily throughout.
“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 the five large bags of possession surrounding her.
Dozens of families were doing the same, gathering whatever clothes and keepsakes 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've 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 fund set up by the local chamber of industry.
Barazi told SANA he was forming committees of local residents to assess the damage.
The evacuation of the Old City by the rebels has been a symbolic coup for the regime.
State media broadcast live footage from inside the Old City, interviewing 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, with a room filled with hospital beds and medicines.
In the courtyard, rebel graffiti remained, reading “Down with Assad,” and “the days are numbered, the end is coming.”
Outside, damage was visible to the compound's facade, and opposite a wall had been painted with the flag of the Syrian uprising.
The deal to evacuate the Old City involved the release of hostages being held by rebels elsewhere in Syria, and the entry of aid to two towns under opposition siege.
A dispute over the aid delivery held up the deal half-way through, but on Friday assistance entered Nubol and Zahraa, and the final rebels left Homs.
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 that is expected to return Assad to office. - AFP