For this week’s issue of TIME, photographer Yuri Kozyrev and TIME Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker traveled to Syria to document locals returning to the city of Homs, which lies in ruins. The return came after a ceasefire between the government and rebel forces who held the city for almost two years. Amid scenes of devastation, Kozyrev photographed one-time residents salvaging belongings and searching for signs of their former lives. Kozyrev and Baker also traveled to Damascus — long a stronghold of pro-Assad sentiment — where, in parts of the city, locals shop and socialize and life goes on much as it always has.
It had taken years, and several attempts each, to get Syrian visas for photographer Yuri Kozyrev and myself. Despite all that waiting, nothing had quite prepared us for what we would encounter in Syria. From the Lebanese border we drove straight to the city of Homs, where a recent ceasefire had just taken effect, after a two-year siege and massive amounts of shelling. The rebel fighters left, and residents were returning to their former neighborhoods to see what could be salvaged from their homes. It was a scene of utter devastation.
Kozyrev, who has covered wars for decades, goggled at the extent of the destruction. “It’s worse than Grozny,” he said, as we walked through a post-apocalyptic landscape, broken teacups and the cut-glass crystal of old chandeliers crunching under our feet. The smell of explosives was everywhere, and fires burned at intersections, filling the air with acrid black smoke. Government soldiers, brought in as guards, had started stripping all the buildings of the electrical wires, and piled the resulting coils into bonfires. They said that they didn’t want any remaining insurgents to use the wires in improvised electrical devices, but they also admitted that the copper inside fetched a good price.
We accompanied families as they sought to salvage what they could of their former lives. “It was a powerful, emotional moment to follow them to their houses, or what was left of their houses,” says Kozyrev. “Many seemed unable to find where they once lived among all the rubble.” Some were lucky, and able to recover furniture and old appliances. Others had to content themselves to a few books, or an old photo album. I saw one woman walking out of the destruction clutching her chandelier, a poignant symbol of all that had been lost.
Damascus, with its lively bars, markets and packed ice-cream parlors showed us the other side of Syria. A stronghold of President Bashar Assad, the capital’s central districts have seen little of the war outside of the television news, and Damascenes go about their daily lives with little thought to what is going on in the rest of the country. “In some ways it’s hard to believe when you look at the images of Homs, but people in Damascus seem to think the war is over,” says Kozyrev. “For them, it’s just a question of time until they rebuild and everything is fine.” For us, temporary visitors, we saw a legacy of war that will likely last for generations to come.
Aryn Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for TIME. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.