Qusayr, a once bustling commercial hub in western Syria, has not seen any fighting since government troops, with the help of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group, drove out Sunni Muslim rebels six years ago.
Large sections of the city lie in ruin and of the thousands who fled the violence, most have not returned. Only about 10,000 people – a tenth of its pre-war population – have come back.
According to former residents living abroad, this is partly because Qusayr, around 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the Lebanese border, is now a security zone where only those with special permission can enter.
The Syrian government appears to want to signal that this is changing: On Sunday, the army escorted around 1,000 people – former residents who fled to other parts of Syria – to the city, where they thronged the streets in celebration.
Several carried the yellow and green flags of the Hezbollah group, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad which played a crucial role in the defeat of the rebels in Qusayr and other parts of western Syria.
Western intelligence sources say the area remains part of a belt of territory in Syria where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence, including by way of tight control on the movement of people.
Although some former Qusayr residents who took part in Sunday’s trip said they had come back for good, others told Reuters their homes were too damaged to live in.
Jamal Hub al Deen, 45, said his home in the city had been “razed to the ground” but that he wanted to see with his own eyes what needed to be done to try to come back soon.
“We call on the state to help us financially to build our home,” he told Reuters. When Hub al Deen left Qusayr due to the fighting, he fled to Homs city, the provincial capital. His journey on Sunday took him along the same route as that of his escape, he said.
The crowd had gathered in Qusayr’s eastern sector where shops were open on Sunday. The neighbourhood sustained the least damage in the fighting, but some buildings had visible damage, with some partially destroyed or riddled with bullet holes.
It was to this district that government offices were moved once the fighting ended in mid-2013. Most of those who already returned are state employees and their families.
Some other state-organised initiatives for the return of Syria’s internally displaced — who total 6.2 million – to former rebel bastions have been made public, but the uptake has been modest. Many of these areas remain under heavy security, while in others there are no basic services.
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told Syrian state media that the government had organised the trip as part of its drive to eventually return Qusayr’s displaced residents.
But Bazari said at least 30% percent of the city had been destroyed and reconstruction would not be completed quickly.
“(Qusayr’s reconstruction) needs time,” Barazi told state owned Ikhbariyah television.
Qusayr and its surroundings have long been a route for smugglers. Rebels made use of it before their defeat and it is now a main supply route for Hezbollah into Syria.
This has made the area a target for Israel, which regularly carries out air strikes inside Syria against Iranian backed forces.
Qusayr’s residents who fled to other parts of Syria are only part of the story: Thousands of others sought refuge in Lebanon, many settling in the town of Arsal. Bazari said their homecoming depended on security clearances and basic services being restored.
For now, any prospect for their return looks unlikely.
Reporting by Reuters TV in Syria and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky QUSAYR, Syria/AMMAN (Reuters)