Syrians return to their homes in ravaged town

Syrians return to their homes in ravaged town
3 min read
09 April, 2016
Displaced Syrians return to their homes in al-Qaryatain after Syrian forces recaptured it from Islamic State militants in ferocious fighting that left much of the town in ruins.
Qaryatain was a symbol of tolerance where Christian and Muslim communities had lived together [Getty]
Bassam Dabbas did not think he would survive to see his hometown of al-Qaryatain retaken when Islamic State [IS] group militants seized control and captured him and hundreds of other Christians.

Now, around eight months later, he stands in the charred remains of the Mar Elian church where he once used to pray, and struggles to digest that he has returned home.

"I have just come back today," the 55-year-old mechanical engineer told AFP, "I still haven't seen my house."

Qaryatain was once viewed as a symbol of tolerance where Christian and Muslim communities had lived together for centuries, but when the extremist fighters of IS arrived last August all that changed.

Dabbas was one of some 270 Christians rounded up and transported around 90 kilometres [55 miles] east deeper into the Syrian desert and locked up by IS in an underground dungeon.

"You cannot believe their behaviour. There is no human behaviour at all," Dabbas, who dreams of restarting his small business making raisin butter, said in broken English.

"It's hard to believe that I am still alive."

Luckily for the group, after 25 days most were released, Dabbas does not know why, and he returned to Qaryatain before eventually fleeing IS-controlled territory for another village near the central city of Homs.

Syrians stand in front of heavily damaged buildings in al-Qaryatain a few days after its recapture from IS militants [Getty]

Now, just five days after Syrian regime forces recaptured the town in what appears to have been ferocious fighting leaving much of the town in ruins, Dabbas is one of a small trickle of the roughly 30,000 people that used to live here who have begun to return.

They have found streets filled with rubble, ransacked houses with holes blasted in them and a ghost town that will take a long time to rebuild.

Just off a central square, Faisal AbhelRahim shows journalists through the home he has just come back to.

The living room ceiling is smashed in, the kitchen is in chaos and a lot of possessions have been looted.

"I am very sad to see it like this, it is very painful," he said.

For the people of Qaryatain, the main focus now is trying to return their lives and their homes to the way they were before IS came.

Retired army officer Mustafa Shablakh has come back to town with his brother, but left the rest of his family in Homs.

He says his house has been "50 percent destroyed" and is currently occupied by a pro-government militia that refuses to leave.

But the main thing for him is to be back in his hometown and rid of the IS fighters.

"As long as the town is free of those criminals it is okay," said Shablakh, who was running a workshop fixing engines before he had to flee.

And now, despite the vast challenges, the rebuilding can begin.

"Berlin was flat once and now it is a great city," Shablakh said.