BEIRUT – They left their homes to escape the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and now they are going back.
Worn out from months of living in tents, about 150 Syrian families decided this week to return to the city of Homs — even if it meant going back to a life under Assad's rule.
Their homecoming was a propaganda coup for the Syrian president, who is looking to burnish his image as Syria's legitimate ruler. His readiness to welcome returnees stands in stark contrast to the indifference in many other places toward the plight of displaced Syrians.
Some 11 million people — half the Syrian population— have been forced from their homes by the maelstrom of violence that has consumed the country.
About 5 million of them have found shelter as refugees in neighboring countries while as many as 6 million are living displaced within Syria, in tents and makeshift settlements — or in homes abandoned by others amid the fighting. Syria's civil war grew out of a brutal crackdown against demonstrations calling for Assad's ouster in 2011.
The families arriving in Homs on Tuesday returned from a camp outside Jarablus, a hot and dusty north Syrian town with a large Turkish military presence.
They had left their city earlier this year, when the government restored its authority over al-Waer, Homs' last rebel-held neighborhood. More than 20,000 people — fighters, draft-dodgers, dissidents, and their families — fled to northern Syria, where Syrian rebels still hold territory, in some places in conjunction with the Turkish military. Turkey has backed Assad's opponents from the first days of the conflict and sent ground troops into north Syria last year.
But exile was not what the displaced from al-Waer were led to believe it would be.
"They were surprised to see it was camps in the desert, and some weren't even prepared yet," said Homs native Abelkader Shalabi, who had found a place to stay in Idlib province, also in northern Syria.
The displaced lived in tents, provided by the U.N. and Turkey, in an arid climate, with scorching summer weather. Days would go by between when tankers delivered water; the camp had no electricity and there was scarcely any work.
After months of hardship, some decided to take their chances with Assad's government.
A parade of buses brought 630 people back to Homs, horns blaring and photos of Assad plastered to the windscreens. Homs' governor, Talal Barazi, said more families could return next week.
"The operation was accomplished today and it will continue until all Syrians willing to return are back in their homes," said a smiling Barazi, who had joined the crowd to greet the returnees.
But the message was pointed — as the families disembarked from the buses, they waved placards bearing Assad's image, circled by the text, "We are all with you."
Some chanted before the cameras that they would sacrifice "blood and soul" for the president.
The government does not want the most stubborn dissidents to return, and such public displays of loyalty are sure to discourage them.
Rouba al-Hakim, one of the returnees, said rebel factions in northern Syria had demanded the men in Jarablus camp take up arms and join the rebels in exchange for food and water.
"We would rather hold up weapons in defense of our homeland," she said.
But other camp residents still in northern Syria, including Radwan al-Hendawi, denied the rebels forced the men in the camps to fight — though everyone reached by The Associated Press who had passed through the Jarablus camp said conditions were wretched.
After two months in the camp, al-Hendawi moved with his wife and in-laws to a flat he'd rented in nearby town of al-Bab, stressing the last of his already meager savings. Al-Bab is under the control of Syrian rebels; he said he could not return to Assad's authority. He spoke to the AP by Skype.
He described life in the camp as worse than living under a government siege in Homs. "We didn't feel we had to humiliate ourselves for a bite of food," said al-Hendawi of living under the siege.
Government forces had kept Homs' al-Waer under siege nearly two years, pummeling the residents with air strikes and barring the U.N. from sending food and medical supplies to the estimated 75,000 people trapped inside. They insisted they were liberating the neighborhood from armed groups inside.
When the residents finally gave up al-Waer, it felt like a capitulation.
The government offered a blanket amnesty to all but many al-Waer residents feared they would be mistreated, or worse, by Assad's notorious security agencies. Under the deal, convoys with hundreds of government-organized buses took them out, to northern Syria.
Many rights groups have criticized the Homs deal — and others similar agreements in Syria — saying they reward siege tactics and amount to forced displacement along political lines.
On Wednesday, a second batch of 300 Syrian refugees returned from Lebanon, where they had been living in Arsal, a border town impacted by spillovers from the Syrian war.
Some 80,000 Syrians live in camps and unofficial settlements in and around Arsal, according to Abdelhalim Shamseddine, a Syrian refugee. The Lebanese army maintains a heavy presence, controlling movement in and out of the area.
Two weeks ago, some 300 Syrians were detained in a sweeping raid by the Lebanese military. Four died in custody, the army later acknowledged, prompting an outcry among Syrians and human rights groups.
The U.N.'s refugee agency says nearly half a million Syrians have returned to their homes this year, mainly to seek out family members, check on property and to a lesser extent, because it felt security was improving in Syria. Of that number, only 31,000 returned from abroad.
Like the Homs returnees, many realize the war is a long way from being over.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.