ALEPPO, Syria – The street looks as if it was hit by an earthquake and the bombed-out building in a former rebel-held northeastern neighborhood of Aleppo is deserted — except for the second-floor apartment where Abdul-Hamid Khatib and his family are staying.
There is no electricity or running water. The apartment windows are covered with nylon sheets and a hole caused by a shell in the sitting room wall is closed with a piece of metal, pierced by the exhaust pipe for the wood-burning heater.
Khatib and his family are the only occupants of the six-story building and they keep its main gate locked with a metal chain, fearing looters. At night, they fumble around the two-bedroom apartment with candles.
But the family has nowhere else to go.
The 56-year-old blacksmith had been jobless for months and could not afford to continue paying rent. He was worried their apartment in Aleppo's Ansari neighborhood would be completely looted if they stayed away.
"A few days ago a man who brought some stuff over told me, 'Is it possible that you live here?' I said where can we go? At least this is our house and no one will ask us to leave," said Hasnaa, Khatib's wife.
Life and war have been very unkind to the Khatib family. The eldest son Mohammed was killed in the bombardment of east Aleppo in 2013 and their granddaughter Hasnaa, 4, was killed a year later by a bullet as she played on the balcony of her parents' apartment. Their son Mahmoud died at work of severe burns while welding a metal container filled with gas.
Since rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad stormed east Aleppo in July 2012, the family had to leave the house twice to move to safer areas, before returning back home. But in August 2016, when government forces intensified their offensive on east Aleppo, an airstrike near their home forced them to flee for the third time.
"It was so dangerous and our kids were terrified so we could not tolerate it anymore. We used to tell the gunmen to move away from here but they would not listen to us," Abdul-Hamid said.
In late December, government forces and their allies took control of east Aleppo, bringing the whole city under state control in the biggest victory for Assad since the country's conflict began in March 2011.
The Khatib family — like many of east Aleppo's residents — were taken to shelters in the village of Jibrin, just south of Aleppo, where they spent a week before returning to their hometown during the first week of January.
Having little money left to rent an apartment, they returned to their abandoned home in Ansari and fixed it as much as possible. They found many of their belongings looted including the refrigerator, stove, a microwave and seven gas cylinders. When asked who was behind the looting, Khatib blamed both rebels and pro-government gunmen.
The couple now lives in the apartment with their daughter Rasha, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Abdul-Hamid and Rimas.
Their apartment appears in relatively good shape compared with nearby housing units. The buildings on either side of theirs are uninhabitable. Most buildings in their area are either a pile of metal and stones, or so damaged they're no longer suitable to live in. Their home now attracts attention from curious passersby as it's the only apartment on the street with washed laundry hanging from the balcony and wood smoke coming from the heater.
Thousands of other families from east Aleppo have returned to their homes because they have nowhere else to go.
Others come in every day to look at their homes and take whatever they can carry with them — especially those in heavily damaged buildings. One neighboring family came to check on their home about 50 meters away and found it could collapse at any moment.
Despite everything, Abdul-Hamid Khatib is optimistic that the situation in his city can only get better. But his wife, Hasnaa, wishes they had fled Syria and joined the nearly four million refugees who settled in neighboring countries, mostly Lebanon and Turkey.
"I feel life was so unjust to me. Although I am alive, I feel as if I am dead," she said, sitting on a plastic chair in her living room." I wish we left at the beginning of the crisis, even if we had to stay in the street."