Syrians return to damaged homes after rebles leave

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Syrians return to damaged homes after rebles leave
In this Thursday, June 5, 2014 photo, Zeinat Akhras and her brother Ayman pose inside a Greek Orthodox church in Homs, Syria. Akhras, a 65-year-old pharmacist, still bears the effects of more than two years trapped in her home, surrounded by rebel fighters, for nearly two years during the government’s siege on the ancient quarters of the central Syrian city of Homs. She’s still a wispy 83 pounds (38 kilos), even after gaining eight points (four kilos) since the blockade ended in early May with the fall of the rebels in the city. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
In this Thursday, June 5, 2014 photo, Zeinat Akhras and her brother Ayman walk to from home to a church in Homs, Syria. Over the course of the 700-day blockade, Zeinat's world shrunk to her living room and her kitchen. She survived reading books, eating plants _ and refusing to look in the mirror, because seeing her withered state might break her spirit. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday, May 2, 2014 in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a deal that will bring the country's third-largest city under control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Flames rise from damaged cars at the site where two car bombs exploded at a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, in Homs province, central Syria, Wednesday April 9, 2014. Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said. (AP Photo/SANA)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows damage inside the Um al-Zinar church in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a military-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to their neighborhood in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photo made on a military-led media tour, pro-government troops patrol the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. For more than a year, these neighborhoods were rebel bastions blockaded by President Bashar Assad’s troops and pounded by his artillery and air force. But under a deal struck this week, the government assumed control of the Old City, while in return some 2,000 opposition fighters were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs.(AP Photo)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows a resident of the old city of Homs, Syria carrying a photograph and a religious figurine after retrieving them on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians fill a city square as they return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble Friday from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens forming the word Homs in Arabic with their bodies, in the Salaheddine district in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble Friday from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city of Homs after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. The red placard with Arabic that reads,"no more words after Homs." (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows damage inside the Um al-Zinar church in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
This image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows an explosion that destroyed the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. The rebel-claimed bombing Thursday in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
This image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows an explosion that destroyed the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. The rebel-claimed bombing Thursday in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
Syrian government forces look at damages in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in the north prepared to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week's cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him. Rebels were completing their withdrawal from Homs on Thursday, a day after hundreds of fighters evacuated from the city under the cease-fire deal. (AP Photo)
A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years. At least 80 percent of rebel fighters have already pulled out of the battleground central Syrian city and the rest will leave later in the day, the provincial governor told AFP. AFP PHOTO/YOUSSEF KARWASHAN (Photo credit should read YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian government solider looks at damaged buildings in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces walk on a damaged street in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces look at damages as they walk on a street in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. For Assad, it is a powerful victory ahead of presidential elections. For the rebels, the dramatic exit after two years of enduring grueling assaults and siege captures their sense of abandonment amid world reluctance to help shift the balance of power on the ground. (AP Photo)
Syrian government officials walk on a road, back dropped, by damaged buildings from fighting with Free Syrian Army fighters in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in the north prepared to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week's cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces inspect damages in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Carrying their rifles and small bags of belongings, hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Two Syrian national flags hang on a pole as government officials inspect damages in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. For Assad, it is a powerful victory ahead of presidential elections. For the rebels, the dramatic exit after two years of enduring grueling assaults and siege captures their sense of abandonment amid world reluctance to help shift the balance of power on the ground. (AP Photo)
Debris lie on a street near the Faical souk in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a street in the Christian neighborhood of Hamidieh in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 soldiers of Assad regime forces were killed in an attack staged by Islamic Front forces to the Carlton Hotel, used as a headquarters by the regime forces, near Citadel of Aleppo, Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 soldiers of Assad regime forces were killed in an attack staged by Islamic Front forces to the Carlton Hotel, used as a headquarters by the regime forces, near Citadel of Aleppo, Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows heavily damaged buildings in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows heavily damaged buildings and debris lying on the ground in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Governor of Homs province Talal al-Barazi stands next to Syrian national flags flying over a square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, the provincial governor said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on May 8, 2014 shows debris lying on the ground following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces sift through the rubble on May 8, 2014 following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces sift through the rubble on May 8, 2014 following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a heavily damaged building in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces play football on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after they regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces gather on a street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 following a negotiated withdrawal of rebel fighters from the city centre where the opposition had held out under tight siege for nearly two years is the first in more than three years of conflict. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 Assad forces killed in a bomb attack by members of Islamic Front in target of Carlton Citadel Hotel Aleppo, headquarters Assad forces near the Citadel of Aleppo in Aleppo, second big city of Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this Feb. 13, 2014 image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, revolutionary goalkeeper Abdelbasit Sarout chants slogans during a demonstration in Homs, Syria. He began as a local hero on the soccer field, playing for the most popular team of his home city Homs and rising toward national stardom across Syria. But when the uprising against President Bashar Assad began, Sarout left all of it to lead peaceful protests, rallying thousands to demand Assad leave power. More than three years later, the former goalkeeper - now an armed fighter - has become a charismatic icon of the Syria’s rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian residents carry a wounded woman from the site where two car bombs exploded at a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, in Homs province, central Syria, Wednesday April 9, 2014. Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said. (AP Photo/SANA)
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HOMS, Syria (AP) - 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. Dust everywhere. Streets strewn with rebar, shattered concrete bricks, toppled telephone poles and the occasional charred, crumpled carcasses of cars.

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.
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