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Return to Qusayr, shattered symbol of Syria at war

  • A Syrian resident walks through a devastated street in Qusayr, on August 1, 2013. Qusayr has been the scene of some of the fiercest combat in the Syrian conflict and has been almost completely deserted by its 50,000 former inhabitantsAFP

  • Syrian soldiers patrol a street of the city of Qusayr, on August 1, 2013. Qusayr has been the scene of some of the fiercest combat in the Syrian conflict and has been almost completely deserted by its 50,000 former inhabitantsAFP

  • A Syrian resident rides his bicycle through Qusayr, on August 1, 2013. Qusayr has been the scene of some of the fiercest combat in the Syrian conflict and has been almost completely deserted by its 50,000 former inhabitantsAFP

On the central reservation down the main road in the former rebel bastion of Qusayr in central Syria, three men are clearing weeds, planting palm trees and pruning oleander bushes.

Behind them, a blue metal sign with white lettering for the "Savings Bank -- Qusayr branch" is riddled with bullet holes, and in front stands what is left of a statue of President Bashar al-Assad's brother Bassel who died in a car crash.

The town is strategic both for the government and for rebels who held it for a year, and it was the scene of some of the fiercest combat in the more than two-year-old conflict.

It has been almost completely deserted by its 50,000 former inhabitants.

But now Qusayr is slowly starting to come back to life since its recapture nearly two months ago by regime forces backed by fighters from Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Two policemen in white shirts, armed also with a fly swatter, sit on a sofa, cups of tea in front of them and smoking cigarettes.

They look on distractedly as the few cars on the streets go about their business. The scene would be peaceful were it not for the wrecked shopfronts and blasted and deserted buildings.

"I'm planting these trees because they symbolise life and love," says Fadi, a 50-year-old tailor whose shop was totally ruined.

"The terrorists destroyed our town and we are rebuilding it because I want to see my country flourish again and the inhabitants return."

Officialdom in Syria uses the term "terrorist" to refer to rebels battling to topple the government, and those Qusayr residents who have returned have little sympathy for the insurgents.

Electricity workers are installing wiring and new street lamps as others try to sort out the tangle of cables in the shattered telecommunications building.

"The terrorists destroyed everything 24 hours before the town was liberated, and caused damage of a billion Syrian pounds ($57 million)," said new local telecoms chief Mtanios al-Shaer, his predecessor having fled with the rebels.

"We've just installed a 1,200-line hub for residents and officials, and 80 lines are now working. But before, of course, capacity was much greater."

No one knows exactly how many residents have returned to the broken town.

No more than 2,000, says Shaer, although the head of the local municipality, Shaza Murad, puts the number at around 600.

In western Qusayr, a town close to the border with multi-confessional Lebanon, lie the Muslim districts -- the rebel heartland and now almost completely deserted.

Retired official Mahmud Ahmad, 74, has gone off on his bicycle to fill a container with two gallons of water from a fountain.

He and his wife Futun did not leave Qusayr except for two days when the fighting was at its fiercest.

"We have no money to rent a house anywhere else, so we came back even though there's no water or electricity," she tells AFP in the gloom of her kitchen.

Their neighbour Abdullah Massara also stayed, and hopes his family will rejoin him after Eid, the feast that marks the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Life is more animated in the Christian-majority east of Qusayr where the community makes up some 10 percent of the population.

Between the two areas, near Clock Square, both the Greek Catholic church and the grand mosque were ransacked

The golden dome of Mar Elias church is peppered with holes, and inside its marble altar has been broken. A tableau representing St Elias has been partly burnt, as have several icons.

Graffiti scrawled on the walls reads "The religion of Mohammed will vanquish the tyrants and renegades" and "Hezbollah liberated this church".

"We have cleaned up our desecrated church, and together we'll try to return it to the state it should be in with whatever means we have," says 40-year-old technician Jafaar Nassur.

"Nothing has come yet from the archbishopric, but every Sunday a priest officiates in the courtyard."

On the other side of the avenue, the mosque is also in a piteous state.

Half of its minaret has been destroyed, the prayer hall is strewn with debris dislodged by bombardments and the floor is littered with shards of glass.

"We are doing what we can at the moment to get things up and running again," says Lieutenant Colonel Raed Abboud, who is in charge of security in Qusayr.

"But in terms of reconstruction, that'll have to wait. This is a country at war."