By Rami Al-Khateeb and Avery Edelman

IDLIB: Displaced residents of an opposition-held city in central Syria are returning home following a Russian-led “de-escalation” plan which took effect in early May, despite extensive destruction and a lack of essential services in the city.

Under the de-escalation plan, which was negotiated between Russia, Iran and Turkey at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan earlier this month, “warfare between [Syrian] government troops and armed opposition units” is meant to cease in four rebel-held “de-escalation zones,” according to Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian Defense Ministry.

However, the plan notably excludes battles against the Islamic State and former al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra [now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham], a rebel faction prominent in northwestern Syria, which forms the largest of the four de-escalation zones.

The rebel-held city of al-Lataminah, in northern Hama province, lies near the frontlines of that zone.

Since the agreement took effect, al-Lataminah has experienced a significant drop in violence, prompting hundreds of displaced families to return.

Most of the city’s residents, home to some 27,000 prior to the conflict, had left the area in recent years, fleeing intense bombardment by the Syrian regime which left 90 percent of essential infrastructure in the city destroyed, including hospitals, schools and bakeries, according to statistics provided to the Syrian Voice by the al-Lataminah Local Council.

Up to 90 percent of al-Lataminah residents face total or partial destruction of their homes, according to the local civil defense force. Photo courtesy of Mahmoud al-Hamouri.

In the wake of the de-escalation agreement, the city continues to witness intermittent artillery shelling, according to a documentation center run by the al-Lataminah Youth Assembly.

Nonetheless, the center told the Syrian Voice that the current situation represents a drastic shift from previous months. During the three months prior to the agreement, the center reported an average of 50 air strikes, 25 barrel bombs and more than 100 rockets and shells per day in al-Lataminah and the surrounding area.

Amid the relative calm this month, 300 families returned to al-Lataminah in the last week alone, bringing the total number of returned families to 750, according to Hussam al-Hassan, president of the local council.

Al-Hassan expects about 25 percent of the total population to return in the coming months if the de-escalation continues, but noted that those coming back face extensive destruction, limited services and a lack of housing or potential alternatives such as tents.

Up to 90 percent residential homes or partially or fully destroyed, according to Manaf Abo al-Faraj, head of the civil defense force in al-Lataminah.

Abo al-Faraj told the Syrian Voice that families are eager to return, regardless of the challenges, in order to harvest crops including wheat, barley and cumin, noting that agriculture is the main source of income for residents.

He added that the civil defense force is now in the process of removing rubble and clearing the city’s roads. Thus far, he says the primary roads have been partially cleared, allowing critical machinery to pass through, but that side roads remain closed.

Civil defense forces remove rubble from the streets of al-Lataminah. Photo courtesy of SMART News Agency.

The local council is also working to provide essentials such as bread and water, according to council president al-Hassan. He says they have distributed food baskets to 400 families in the city and its surrounding area over the past two weeks.

“The local council is working within its limited capacities to set up suitable living conditions and necessary services for families,” he added.

Khaldon al-Dablan is one of those who have returned despite the obstacles. He came back to al-Lataminah on May 25 after a four-year absence spent in a camp for displaced persons in northern Idlib province.

Residents take home aid packages distributed by the city’s local council. Photo courtesy of SMART News Agency.

Al-Dablan told the Syrian Voice that he decided to come back after the security situation improved and the bombing ceased, noting as well that he works in the agricultural sector and hopes to harvest his land.

He added, however, that “the decision to return is not final,” explaining that he left his tent in the north in case the bombings return and he needs to flee once again.

Abi Abdullah, a displaced resident of al-Lataminah currently staying at the Atma camp near the Turkish border, says that he and other fellow residents are also thinking of returning “as soon as possible.”

“We can no longer tolerate life in the camps,” he said. “If the calm continues, we will return.”

“The land is ours. It holds our memories and our martyrs are buried beneath it.”

Original Arabic article found here.