Civilians start returning to battered Homs

Hundreds of displaced Syrians returned back to central Homs on Friday to see what remained of their homes

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Hundreds of people displaced by three years of violence in central Homs returned for the first time Friday, as the Syrian army regained control, reported an Agence France-Presse correspondent at the scene.

Men, women and children returned together to see what remained of their homes. Many were shocked and some had tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins of their battered neighborhoods, said the journalist.

“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,” Jaqueline Fawwas, a 30-year-old woman returning to the Old City, told AFP.

A 45-year-old who returned with her husband and did not identify herself said: “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.”

People returning had to hand over their IDs to the troops upon entering the formerly rebel-held districts, the Associated Press reported. 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, told the Associated Press. “My house was destroyed.”

Imad Nanaa, 52, returned to check on 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, WHO reported.

On Friday, bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in Homs after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods, the Associated Press reported.

The Syrian government claimed control over Homs after an agreement that granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city.

“We have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs,” said Homs’s governor Talal al-Barazi, referring to more than 2,000 people, mainly fighters, who have been withdrawing from the area since Wednesday.

Since Wednesday, some 1,700 rebels have left Homs under the deal struck by the government and opposition.

The Syrian government regaining control of Homs has brought an end to a fierce, two-year battle for the heart of Syria’s third-largest city.

Barazi said that engineering units were combing the old neighborhoods of the city Friday, including the former opposition stronghold of Hamidiyeh, in search of mines and other explosives.

State TV said two soldiers were killed while dismantling a bomb.

Back in Hamadiyeh, the Roman Orthodox bishop in Homs, George Abu Zakhm, told The Associated Press 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 St. Elian Church, and said that icons that date 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 many buildings bear the scars of fighting.

(With AFP and Associated Press)

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