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.