Qusayr, a once-bustling commercial hub in western Syria, has not seen any fighting since government troops, with the help of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group, drove out Sunni Muslim rebels six years ago.
Large sections of the city lie in ruin and of the thousands who fled the violence, most have not returned. Only about 10,000 people – a tenth of its prewar population – have come back.
Former residents living abroad say this is partly because Qusayr, about 10 kilometres from the Lebanese border, is now a secure zone that only those with special permission can enter.
The Syrian government appears to want to signal that this is changing. On Sunday, the army escorted about 1,000 people – former residents who fled to other parts of Syria – to the city, where they thronged the streets in celebration.
Several carried the yellow and green flags of Hezbollah, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which played a crucial role in the defeat of the rebels in Qusayr and other parts of western Syria.
Western intelligence sources say the area remains part of a belt of territory in Syria, where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence, imposing tight control on the movement of civilians.
Although some former Qusayr residents who took part in Sunday’s trip said they had come back for good, others told Reuters their homes were too damaged to live in.
Jamal Hub Al Deen, 45, said his home in the city had been “razed” but that he wanted to see with his own eyes what needed to be done to help him try to come back soon.
“We call on the state to help us financially to build our home,” he told Reuters.
When Mr Al Deen left Qusayr due to the fighting, he fled to Homs city, the provincial capital. His journey on Sunday took him along the same route as that of his escape, he said.
The crowd had gathered in Qusayr’s eastern sector, where shops were open on Sunday. The district sustained the least damage in the fighting, but many buildings had visible damage – some were riddled with bullet holes.
It was to this district that government offices were moved once the fighting ended in mid-2013. Most of those who have already returned are state employees and their families.
Some other state-organised initiatives for the return of Syria’s internally displaced – who total 6.2 million – to former rebel bastions have been made public, but the uptake has been modest. Many of these areas remain under heavy security, while in others there are no basic services.
The governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, told Syrian state media that the government had organised the trip as part of its drive to return Qusayr’s displaced residents. But he said at least 30 per cent of the city was in ruins and reconstruction would not be completed quickly.
Qusayr’s reconstruction “needs time,” Mr Barazi told state-owned Ikhbariyah television.
Qusayr and its surroundings have long been a route for smugglers. Rebels made use of it before their defeat and it is now a main supply route for Hezbollah into Syria.
This has made the area a target for Israel, which regularly carries out air strikes inside Syria against Iranian-backed forces.
Residents of Qusayr who fled to other parts of the country are only part of the story.
Thousands of others sought refuge in Lebanon, many settling in the town of Arsal. Mr Barazi said their homecoming depended on security clearance and basic services being restored.
For now, any prospect of their return looks unlikely.