Hundreds of Syrians, some snapping photographs with their cell phones, wandered down paths carved out of rubble in the old quarters of Homs on Friday, getting their first glimpse of the horrendous destruction that two years of fighting inflicted on rebel-held parts of the city.
The scenes that greeted them were devastating: City blocks pounded into an apocalyptic vista of hollow facades of blown-out buildings. Streets strewn with rebar, shattered concrete bricks, toppled telephone poles and the occasional charred, crumpled carcasses of cars. Dust everywhere.
For more than a year, President Bashar Assad's troops blockaded these neighborhoods, pounding the rebel bastions with his artillery and air force. Under a deal struck this week, the government assumed control of the old quarters, while in return some 2,000 rebel fighters were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs.
The final piece of the agreement fell into place Friday afternoon as the last 300 or so rebels left Homs after an aid convoy was allowed into two pro-government villages in northern Syria besieged by the opposition. The aid delivery was part of the Homs agreement.
The withdrawal was a major victory for the government in a conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people since March 2011. The deal handed Assad control of the city once known as "the capital of the revolution," as well as a geographic linchpin in central Syria from which to launch offensives on rebel-held territory in the north.
Even before the last rebels departed, government bulldozers were clearing paths through the heaviest rubble in Homs' battle-scarred districts Friday. It marked the first time that government troops have entered these neighborhoods — the last rebel bastions in the city — in more than a year.
Homs governor Talal Barazi said engineering units were combing Hamidiyeh and other parts of the old quarters in search of mines and other explosives. State TV said two soldiers were killed while dismantling a bomb.
The SANA state news agency reported that army troops discovered two field hospitals in the neighborhoods of Bab Houd and Qarabis, as well as a network of underground tunnels linking the districts to each other and to the countryside.
An Associated Press reporter on a military-led tour of Homs said soldiers and pro-government militiamen fanned out across the districts to provide security. In Hamadiyeh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood before the fighting caused residents to flee, people trickled back in to check on their properties.
Imad Nanaa, 52, returned to examine his home for the first time in almost three years. Miraculously, he found it almost intact, compared to other houses with shattered windows and crumbling walls.
Speaking nervously and hurriedly because he wanted to leave as quickly as possible, Nanaa said he was looking forward to coming back with his family as soon as the army allowed it.
"This deal has saved us from more blood and destruction," he said.
Later, hundreds of men, women and children — some in strollers — walked through parts of the eight-mile-long old quarters, flashing victory signs and taking pictures. Some men in the first group dashed inside, passing burned-out cars and heavily damaged buildings.
People returning were required to hand over their IDs to the troops upon entering the formerly rebel-held districts. The soldiers then returned the papers as the people filed out later.
One man walked out with a guitar under his arm. A woman emerged from her home carrying a stack of photo albums.
"I have nothing left for me to remember so I brought these photos," the woman, Fadia al-Ahmar, said. "My house was destroyed."
The staggering scale of destruction in the area spoke to the ferocity of the fighting.
In the Maljaa neighborhood, every building was damaged, even cars parked inside. An eight-story building was flattened into rubble. Shop fronts were pancaked. Walls of apartment blocks were blasted with holes from artillery and tank shells.
Back in Hamadiyeh, the historic St. Mary Church of the Holy Belt was heavily damaged, although the thick stone walls were still standing. There were no pews and some of the icons were disfigured. The Syriac Orthodox church's damaged bell lolled on the ground in the courtyard.
The Greek Orthodox bishop in Homs, George Abu Zakhm, told the AP that the situation there is "catastrophic." He said all 11 churches in Homs' old quarter have been either heavily damaged or destroyed.
He accused the rebels of lighting a fire inside the 6th century Greek Orthodox St. Elian Church, and said icons dating back hundreds of years "are still on the walls but they were blackened."
Islamic extremists among Syria's rebels have desecrated churches elsewhere in Syria, but there was no immediate evidence to suggest that opposition fighters were responsible for the damage to Christian sites in central Homs, where every building bore the scars of fighting.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now