HOMS, Syria (AP) — Once Syrian opposition fighters start pulling out of the last rebel-held area of Homs this week, the city once known as the "capital of the revolution" will fully return to government control.
But its inhabitants have only been trickling back, and many neighborhoods are still ravaged and deserted after more than four years of civil war — a sign of the enormous challenges the government faces in reasserting its authority over areas once held by the opposition.
The first stage of the rebel evacuation from the Waer neighborhood of Homs may begin as early as Wednesday, part of a truce reached between the government and the opposition. Government forces had blockaded Waer for nearly three years, only sporadically allowing in food.
The first batch of fighters is expected to include 300 to 700 gunmen, although some 3,000 fighters are believed to be holed up inside the neighborhood, which is separated from the rest of the city by the Orontes River.
The deal is similar to one struck in May 2014 in Homs' Old City. There, the government assumed control of the quarter after about 2,000 rebels were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs. The area was destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee, and rebels surrendered only after they were starved and outgunned.
The international community is making its most serious push yet for a cease-fire and peace talks to end the conflict that began in 2011. Many hope that such local deals can be replicated across Syria to create pockets of peace and a climate conducive to talks leading up to a transitional government.
But the situation in Homs today points to the huge difficulties that lay ahead after the guns fall silent.
On a government-sanctioned trip this week to Syria's third-largest city, an Associated Press team found that little has changed from when the rebels first left 18 months ago. The streets have been cleared of rubble, but few people have returned.
In the ancient part of the city — a series of neighborhoods making up the 8-mile-long old quarter — the occasional sound of a hammer clanking on metal points to sporadic restoration work by few Syrians who have returned to reopen businesses amid battle-scarred and ravaged buildings.
Of the 2,500 shops in the ancient, covered souk or marketplace, only five have reopened.
Among those is one owned by Maan Hbous, a 55-year-old businessman who returned in May and works as a contractor for others who want to return to their jobs.
He has fixed up his wrecked store, but it stands empty, except for a table and a few chairs where he receives visitors.
"We hope to reopen the souk in the next months," he said. "The reconciliation in Waer is important. We hope it will go ahead as this will be important for the return of co-existence and for the souk to return to what it was," he added.
Nour Saad, a 30-year-old owner of a shop on what was once known as the Jewelers' Street, is a widow raising two teenage boys on her own. Her husband was killed by rebel snipers in a Damascus suburb some time ago.
She is struggling to reopen their lingerie and clothing store, but insists on setting an example for others.
"I am fighting to reopen the store on my own to encourage people to return," said Saad, wearing a black sweater and red jacket as a few workers cleared up the mess inside the shop. So far, she has only installed metal shutters.
But Saad and Hbous are among the minority of Homs residents who have chosen to invest money in rebuilding.
An AP team found most businesses still closed, their metal shutters marked with shrapnel and bullet holes. Rows of buildings have collapsed top floors, burned facades or crumbling walls, with no apparent attempt at repair.
Electricity is erratic — the residents rely on loud generators — and telephone lines have yet to be restored.
On one street, a lone woman pushed a baby stroller with a box of belongings in front of destroyed shops. Nearby hung a poster of President Bashar Assad in a military uniform and sunglasses.
The final rebel withdrawal from Homs will be touted as a major victory for the government in a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.
Homs, a geographic linchpin in central Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against Assad, with massive protests turning it into a battleground as government forces cracked down and opponents took up arms.
Government forces clamped a seal over opposition-held districts in early 2012. Most of the tens of thousands of residents had already fled. As the siege dragged on into late 2013, hunger spread and morale collapsed, and the rebels began deserting the city.
Russia's military intervention on Assad's behalf, which began Sept. 30, has emboldened government forces to go on the offensive in various parts of Syria, although it does not appear the Waer deal has anything to do with it.
"I expect that the reconciliation in Waer will be an introduction for similar agreements in Houleh, Rastan and Talbiseh," Gov. Talal Barazzi told the AP, referring to other rebel-held areas of Homs province.
"They (the gunmen) can return to their normal life, take part in protecting the cities and villages, and stand alongside the Syrian army in a national battle — a battle in the face of terrorism," he said.
But it is precisely such talk that makes many residents of former rebel bastions fearful of returning to their homes, now under government control.
Many are convinced the government eventually plans to turn once predominantly Sunni cities and towns into areas with a Shiite majority so that no threat to the government can emerge.
Waer-based opposition activist Bebars al-Talawy said by phone that the government is preventing people from returning to areas evacuated by opposition fighters because they want to replace them with members of Assad's Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, as well as other Shiites. The claim is echoed by many in Syria and those who have fled abroad.
"It has been three years. We are tired, we starved, fought and buried 1,500 people, and in the end we returned to the bosom of the state," he said sarcastically.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this story.