ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Aleppo's largest square was packed with people of all ages: young men performing a folk dance, children playing, others buying ice cream, popcorn, peanuts and salted pumpkin seeds. A giant sign spelled out in colorful English letters, "I love Aleppo."
The scene in Saadallah al-Jabiri Square on a recent day was very different from what it was during nearly four years of war that wrecked Syria's largest city: Rebel sniper fire and shelling — and a triple car bombing that killed dozens — had made it a no-go zone. For years, the square stood near the front line dividing the government-held western half of Aleppo from the rebel-held eastern half.
Thirteen months after government forces captured the east and crushed the rebels, improvements are coming to Aleppo — but only slowly. The guns are silent, allowing life to return to the streets. Water and electricity networks are better.
The devastation of Aleppo was so great, the civilian flight was so big and the political division was so deep that residents find it difficult to imagine it could ever return to what it was.
Eastern Aleppo remains in ruins. Its streets have been cleared of rubble but there's been little rebuilding of the blocks of destroyed or badly damaged buildings. Though some residents have trickled back, hundreds of thousands still have not, either because their homes are wrecked or because they fear reprisals for their opposition loyalties.
After the victory by the forces of President Bashar Assad, there's also little sign of attempts at reconciliation or talk of how part of the city tried to bring down his rule. Whether out of genuine sentiment or fear of state reprisals, residents express to reporters only pro-Assad sentiments and dismiss the rebels as Islamic militants backed by foreign powers. Die-hard opposition sympathizers either have not returned or keep to themselves, and everyone is more focused on grappling with the destruction in the city.
"I feel very sad, I cry. Sometimes I cry in the morning because this was a very good neighborhood," said Adnan Sabbagh, standing on a balcony in his building in the once-rebel-held eastern district of Sukkari.
The view from his balcony is a landscape of wreckage. Across the street is a pile of rubble a block long that used to be the Ein Jalout school compound that his three daughters and two sons once attended. Beyond it stand apartment buildings that have been sheared in half, their internal staircases exposed. The building adjacent to Sabbagh's has been leveled to a hill of broken concrete, rebar and stone.
Sabbagh's own six-story building still stands, but its top three floors have had all their walls blasted away, leaving slabs of concrete floor dangling precariously.
The 47-year-old construction worker fled to the coastal town of Jableh five years ago as soon as the rebels overran eastern Aleppo. All three of his daughters are married to soldiers in Assad's army, so he feared the fighters would not tolerate his presence.
Last autumn, he returned home and fixed up his apartment on the second floor where he now lives with his wife and youngest son, Hamza. He relies on generators set up in the neighborhood because like most other parts of eastern Aleppo, there's no electricity in Sukkari — the government is still working to reinstall utility poles. But running water has been restored — although it's available only every other day, as is the case throughout the city as a whole.
With a prewar population of 2.3 million, Aleppo not only was Syria's largest city but also its commercial center. More than that, it had a culture all of its own within Syria. Aleppans take enormous pride in their own accent of Syrian Arabic and their city's famed cuisine of roast meats and mezze appetizers. Its history spans millennia, and tourists were drawn by its historic citadel, Ummayad Mosque and covered bazaar.
But it became one of the most vicious battlegrounds of Syria's still ongoing war.
In July 2012, rebels stormed eastern parts of the city, where they were welcomed by many of its poorer residents. For the next few years, the opposition fighting Assad around the country saw their enclave in Aleppo as the jewel of their uprising, their strongest urban center. It tore Aleppo in two, however, with destructive battles as tens of thousands fled the city.
In 2016, government forces backed by Russian airstrikes surrounded the enclave, besieging it for months and pounding it with shells and missiles. By the end, the rebels and residents trapped with them in a shrinking area of neighborhoods faced either being crushed or starvation. In December 2016, they surrendered. The rebels were sent to opposition territory elsewhere, while the few remaining residents were evacuated, leaving the eastern sector — once home to well over 1 million people — a shattered, empty shell.
Some have filtered back. The top U.N. official in Syria, Ali Al-Za'tari, said the numbers are uncertain but that the U.N is aware of nearly 200,000 now living in the east, based on those who have registered for assistance.
Most of the factories in Aleppo's 15 industrial districts are still closed, damaged either by looting or from bombardment by government forces. Despite the relative peace, insurgents on Aleppo's western outskirts fire shells occasionally. That has slowed the return of production at Lairamoun, an industrial district only few hundred meters (yards) from rebel positions.
Ghassan Nazi, owner of a textile factory in Lairamoun, said that once the rebels are pushed back, he will reopen his business. Touring the now-silent factory, he said it was used as a prison by an Islamist rebel faction called the Badr Martyrs. He said he's suffered some $5 million in losses.
He blames "neighboring countries" that he said plotted to destroy Aleppo as an economic engine. He didn't identify the countries but many government supporters use the phrase to refer to opposition-backer Turkey. "They simply want to turn us from producers to consumers," he said.
In western Aleppo, where damage was lighter, there's a feeling of liberation from life under warfare. Power comes several hours a day and will soon run around the clock. Sand berms that were set up on many streets have been removed, and security checkpoints have been pulled from the heart of the city to its entrances, freeing traffic.
Im el-Nour, a 51-year-old woman who drives a taxi — the only female cab driver in the city, she says — has seen a boost in work. She can now operate in the east, where conservative women call her for their errands to avoid riding with a male driver. El-Nour also works as a DJ at women-only parties or weddings, which have become more frequent now with the relative peace.
"One of the songs that I play a lot is Cheb Khaled's 'C'est La Vie,'" she said, referring to a popular Algerian singer. She added that women also like to dance to Canadian singer Celine Dion, Shakira and Lebanon's Najwa Karam.
Between her two jobs, el-Nour — who is divorced and whose son was killed while fighting in Assad's army — makes more than $100 a month, a bit more than a typical civil servant. "Aleppo will again become the jewel of the Middle East," she boasted.
At Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, Mustafa Khodor churned out popcorn as parents lined up to buy from him. He said his sales have tripled. "The liberation of Aleppo was a turning point for us in this city. People now feel safe and go out," said the father of five.
Nearby, Abdullatif Maslawi, a 21-year-old law student, performed a traditional dance known as dabke with a group of his friends.
"Aleppo is my soul," he said. "Aleppo was wounded and now it is being cured."