MAALOULA, Syria – Its historic churches pillaged by jihadis and buildings riddled with shrapnel, this ancient Christian town north of Damascus still bears the scars of the fierce fighting that devastated it two years ago.
Residents vividly recall the shock they felt when they returned to their town after it was recaptured by the Syrian army from the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria, and other militants in 2014.
"We were horrified by what we saw: Everything was ruined, burned and plundered," said Rayan Wehbi of the once-scenic hamlet that was seized by the jihadis in 2013. "After the militants stormed the city, they stole all they could and destroyed the rest."
International journalists on a trip to Syria organized by the Russian government on Thursday visited Maaloula, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus.
Although heavily armed Syrian soldiers could be seen patrolling the town, the relative peace in Maaloula contrasts sharply with other areas on the outskirts of Damascus where intense fighting continues to rage. The capital's eastern suburbs, such as Douma or Harasta, are still held by the rebels even though government troops made some advances there recently.
An enclave set into the region's rocky hills, Maaloula changed hands several times in the war. The government recaptured it from militants in early 2014 in an important propaganda victory for President Bashar Assad's government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities. Some Maaloula residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
At St. Takla Convent, a Greek Orthodox monastery that dates back to the early centuries of Christianity, the dome and walls of the church were gutted by fire, its frescoes damaged by bullets and its windows broken.
A local priest says the invaders stole valuable icons and destroyed many others.
Another monastery, the Greek Catholic St. Sergius, known locally as Mar Sarkis, which sits atop a steep mountain towering over the town, was also vandalized and its rare icons, one of the oldest in the world, were stolen. The jihadis also abducted the local nuns, who were later freed for ransom.
Hundreds of government troops were killed in the battle for the town, said the mayor, Youssef Saadi.
"They have destroyed many things here. They stole the rare icons, broke the church's cross and stole the bells," he said.