The historic Christian town of Maaloula stands a shadow of its former self, abandoned and war-scarred, a month after Syrian government forces expelled Islamist rebels.
In the main square, with its posters of President Bashar Assad and slogans daubed on walls singing his praises, a handful of soldiers lounge in the spring sunshine.
Maaloula’s residents, many of whom still speak Aramaic, believed to be the language of Jesus Christ, are nowhere to be seen.
Silence fills the mountain town, broken only by the squeaks of swallows as they swoop near ancient caves with their tales from the early years of Christianity.
“People come here for an hour to see their homes, and then they leave,” a soldier told AFP on a state-authorized visit to the town, 50 kilometers northeast of Damascus.
The damage is nowhere near as heavy as in places like Homs, where entire neighborhoods have been flattened in Syria’s three-year war.
But the battle for Maaloula has left its scars.
It lasted seven months, with the army finally expelling opposition forces, including Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, in mid-April.
Homes have been left burnt out, with windows broken, doors smashed in and balconies collapsed.
The picturesque town was a strategic prize because of its location in the Qalamoun mountains, on the road between Damascus and Lebanon.
It was recaptured with the support of fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah, and Assad paid a triumphant visit on April 20 to mark Easter.
It was also a symbolic victory for Assad’s regime, which casts itself as the protector of Syria’s minorities, a claim which the opposition mocks as propaganda.
So far, there are no signs of reconstruction in the town, whose 5,000 residents are largely Greek Catholic, with a Muslim minority.
“We need aid, because people here have lost everything,” Fassih, the sole resident sighted, said near the famed Orthodox monastery of Mar Taqla.