HOMS, Syria – Thousands of Syrians streamed into war-battered parts of the central city of Homs for the first time in nearly two years Saturday, checking their homes after rebels left as part of a deal allowing them to safely withdraw as pro-government forces took the city.
Men, women and children fanned through the smashed ancient quarters of Homs, some in pickup trucks and bicycles, while most walked on a breezy, sunny day. A youth band banging drums and holding photographs of the Syrian President Bashar Assad marched through the area, adding a celebratory mood for those supporting his government amid the 3-year-old conflict.
Hundreds of rebels surrendered their stronghold in Homs to government forces in exchange for their safe passage to the nearby northern countryside as part of a deal that began Wednesday.
The some 2,000 rebels – as well as civilians living there- were badly weakened by nearly two years of blockade that caused widespread suffering and hardship.
The deal is widely seen as a victory for Assad weeks ahead of a presidential election that he is expected to win, giving him a mandate to continue his violent crackdown on rebels in the Syrian civil war, which activists say has killed more than 150,000 people.
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Residents scavenged what they could from their homes Saturday, mostly clothes, dusty mattresses and some burned gas canisters, carrying them away in plastic bags and trolleys.
“My house was completely destroyed and burnt, but I found some photos,” said Sara Mousa, 49, a resident of the old Hamidiyeh district. “They will remain a memory for me of the beautiful days we had here.”
Some accused rebels of looting their homes. Smaller crowds made the journey Friday.
Others rushed to the area of Bustan al-Diwan, gathering to pray around the grave of an elderly, beloved Dutch priest who was shot to death in April in a rebel-held part of Homs.
Father Francis Van Der Lugt, 75, was a Jesuit, the same order as Pope Francis. His death underscored fears among many of Syria’s Christian and Muslim minorities for the fate of their communities as Islamic extremists gain influence among rebels seeking to topple Assad.
“I came to pray on his grave,” said Rasim Sayrafi, 40. “The father was a secular man who walked with Muslims and Christians, together and equally. I am here to remember that.”