HOMS, Syria – Syrians have begun trudging back into the Old City of Homs, where they dig among the ruins for the remains of lives shattered by heavy fighting and a grinding two-year siege that finally forced rebels to withdraw last month.
On one street a Syrian man strapped a red chair to his bicycle and pedaled around piles of rubble beneath buildings hollowed out by months of shelling. On another, two children in tattered clothes dragged on cigarettes as they hauled away scrap metal.
This apocalyptic landscape will be a testing ground for efforts by President Bashar Assad's government to resettle urban areas seized from the rebels and stitch Syria's shredded multi-sectarian tapestry back together, even as the uprising against him shows no sign of abating.
The government's victory in Homs, once dubbed the "capital of the revolution," came at a staggering cost. Months of heavy shelling in 2011 and 2012 gave way to a suffocating army siege in which the few thousand residents who remained in the Old City nearly starved to death, surviving for months on little more than weeds.
Block after block of bombed-out buildings, encompassing around half of Syria's third largest city, reveal the devastating onslaught unleashed by Assad's forces against an uprising that began in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests but eventually ignited a civil war. The fighting has claimed an estimated 160,000 lives and displaced more than nine million people.
On a scorching day earlier this month a young soldier with a black duffel bag clamored over a hill of rubble that was once an apartment block in Homs.
"All I found were the verses of the Quran," he said, referring to framed pages that adorn many Muslim homes. When asked about the rest of his home he responded, "Leave it to God," before walking away.
In a former front-line area, a bulldozer had cleared paths through piles of rubble interspersed with artifacts of domestic life — the foamy contents of a mattress, pots and pans and a pink plate. Bullet-riddled shutters creaked and twisted in the wind.
A nearby sniper's nest held clues to the rebels' final days before the withdrawal. The room was stacked with sandbags and metal drums, the floor littered with a cigarette pack and an empty liquor bottle. "Assad's dogs died here," was scrawled on the wall.
The destruction brutally illustrates the imbalance of force between the government's modern army and the outgunned rebels. It also suggests the unravelling of sectarian relations as the war enters its fourth year. Christians and other minorities have largely stood by Assad, fearing the Islamic extremists that have assumed a powerful role in the Sunni-led insurgency.
The walls of the mostly Christian Majla area are scarred with bullets, but most buildings stand. The mostly Sunni area of Khalidiya, by contrast, is an expanse of shelled-out buildings and hills of rubble.
In the nearby Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt, a Syriac Orthodox church, the foundations of which date back to A.D. 50, workers had just finished fixing the floor around the altar. Someone had apparently tried to unearth the church's prized relic, part of a belt believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary, according to parish priest Zahri Khazaal.
The metal bust of a patriarch nearby appeared to have been used as target practice.
Khazaal estimated that some 600 Christians out of a pre-war population of 80,000 had returned to the area since the rebels left, based on church attendance.
They include Hana Awaida, 82, who said he and his wife were forced out of their home by the rebels. They came back to find their house burnt out, but still standing.
"We don't have any money to rebuild," he shrugged. But he said they had nowhere else to go.
In another Christian area, workers were repairing damage to the home of Najib Nasara, where it appeared rebel fighters had smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary. Nasara nevertheless said he hoped his Muslim neighbors would return.
"We can't live without them, and they can't live without us," he said.
In one of the Sunni neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the assault, Amal, 53, said there was nothing left to salvage.
Her brother went missing in December 2012, but she wouldn't say how or why — a response typical among families who support, or once supported, the uprising. Now she, her sister-in-law and her brother's five children are squatting in a damaged home, but the apartment's owners want it back.
"We have nowhere to go," Amal said, asking that her last name not be published for fear of retribution.
Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, said that residents whose homes were destroyed would be compensated or provided with an alternative residence, but it's unclear where the government will find such resources in the wartime economy.
Khaled, 47, was among the lucky few who found his house battered but still standing.
"It's four ceilings and a wall, but it's standing," he said. "There's nothing more beautiful than one's own home, even when it's destroyed."
The graffiti throughout the bombed-out areas strikes a darker tone. "Either Assad or the country burns," is written on one pock-marked wall.
Another line, perhaps left by a departing fighter, vows: "We are leaving, but coming back."