Weary from living in tents, Syrians trickle back to government-held areas they fled from
Their homecoming was a propaganda coup for the Syrian president, who is looking to burnish his image as Syria's legitimate ruler.
They left their homes to escape the government of Syrian president Bashar Al 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 Mr 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 neighbouring 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 the ousting of Mr Al Assad 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 neighbourhood. More than 20,000 people — fighters, draft-dodgers, dissidents, and their families — fled to northern Syria, where rebels still hold territory, in some places in conjunction with the Turkish military. Turkey has backed Mr Al 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 UN 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 Mr Al Assad's government.
A parade of buses brought 630 people back to Homs, horns blaring and photos of Mr Al 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.
Updated: July 13, 2017 09:21 PM