ALEPPO – The streets of Kalasseh, a neighbourhood of Aleppo formerly held by rebels, are jammed with traffic again and its pavements are packed with people and overflowing market stalls.
But the rows of flattened buildings flanking them are a constant reminder of the devastating battle that had reduced a city that was one of the jewels of the Middle East to ruins by the time Syrian government forces retook it a year ago on Friday.
“It’s crowded… people are coming back,” says Khayro Moselmani, a former taxi driver from the neighbourhood.
Miles away in Idlib province, Mohammed Assaf, a supporter of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, is still grieving the “tragic” day he had to flee his Aleppo home.
December 22, 2016 was a turning point in the Syrian conflict: after four years of relentless fighting that gutted the city and killed thousands of civilians, government forces retook control.
It was the beginning of the end for the rebels, who went on to relinquish most of their bastions to regime forces backed by Russia, whose formidable firepower tipped the balance.
The eastern part of Aleppo that was the rebels’ stronghold was levelled by Russian and Syrian air strikes.
Months of siege left tens of thousands of people starving and in need of medical attention, and eventually led to their evacuation just a few days before the regime took full control.
– Ghost town to bustling districts –
A year on, life is slowly returning to the city. Water and electricity are back in most areas, the mountains of rubble are being trucked away, the streets cleaned and resurfaced.
Moselmani fled Aleppo in the summer of 2012 as rebels took over the city’s east, and moved to Tartus, a coastal town in the heartland of the Alawite community to which Assad belongs.
He returned to his hometown a month after the government took it back and found his home had been destroyed.
“At the time we came back, it was almost unthinkable to see a single person in the neighbourhood,” the sexagenarian, who now sells grilled meat on the street, remembered.
“Now, they are coming in and out… Thank god, there is security.”
The activity on the streets offers a stark contrast with last year’s eerie, post-apocalyptic pictures of deserted districts in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
On one thoroughfare, workers are trying to fill a gaping hole in the side of a building. Further down, some recently returned residents have had to make do with temporary plastic sheeting to replace their collapsed roof.
“At the time of the rebels, it was starvation,” said Salah Moghayer, a resident of the Salhin neighbourhood who used to work in a hammam.
Like thousands of other residents, he was evacuated at the end of the siege and returned in early 2017.
“The hammam was destroyed. As soon as it is repaired, I will take my old job back,” said the father of three daughters, who now works as a porter.
– ‘Tearing your heart out’ –
Unofficial estimates say around 500,000 people, about half of east Aleppo’s population, have returned.
Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, warned however that the rebirth of what was Syria’s commercial hub is still a long way away.
He said the looting of the industrial zone and the flight of Aleppo’s business community has crippled the city.
“They are in Gaziantep (Turkey), where they have rebuilt their factories and brought all their workers with them. They have no intention of returning,” he said.
The city was reunited a year ago but the divide has not been erased.
West Aleppo was also damaged but not nearly as much as the city’s east, where many residents who lived under the rebels are too scared to come back.
“I haven’t made any plans to go back because with a president who is a despot and oppresses people, it’s just not possible,” said Mohammed Louai. “I would surely be arrested.”
The 22-year-old now lives in the neighbouring province of Idlib, where many of Aleppo’s routed rebels and their supporters fled.
“It was as if someone was tearing your heart out… We were in shock for six months,” he said.
Mohammed Assaf, a young man of the same age, was one of the Aleppo-based rebels forced to relocate to Idlib a year ago.
“We’d rather not remember that day… Even with a one percent chance to free Aleppo, we were happy to stay.”