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Syria's future remains buried under millions of tons of rubble

Jonathan Vigliotti on covering Syria

Homs, Syria -- Rows of lush olive trees in the village of al-Suqaylabiyah frame stone houses that appeared to be decomposing. The worst resembled giant ant hills, reduced to rubble by a wartime mix of mortars and shells. Syria's nearly eight-year civil war has transformed every corner of the country, and as the government closes in on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib, this muddy and fractured farmland nearby has become part of the final front line.

British producer Barny Smith, Italian photographer Frederico Pucci and I traveled here with the National Defense Forces or NDF, a pro-government militia whose barracks are a collection of white canvass tents hidden in the orchards. As the sun set I could make out the silhouette of one soldier resting inside. It was an almost idyllic scene, if not for a small group of rogue rebels the NDF said were only 700 meters away.

As US-backed Kurdish forces grab hold of what little is left of the ISIS caliphate on the eastern side of the country, Syrian observers say the north-western province of Idlib could become one of the worst humanitarian crises in the war's history. An estimated 70,000 rebels are hiding among three million civilians. And while a ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey in September has minimized bloodshed, tensions are rising. "Civilians continue to be used as pawns, caught in a crossfire of bombardments by the Government and its allies, and attacks by non-state armed groups," warned U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last week.

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Those "non-state armed groups" were once a collection of both moderate and extremist factions, but in January the al-Qaeda-linked terror cell Hayat Tarhir al Sham consolidated power. And that's when the NDF says the attacks began.

"The Syrian army is committed to the ceasefire but the rebels are not," Regional Commander Simón al-Wakeel told me from his headquarters in the city of Hama. They sometimes fire "20 rockets every day. Other days six or seven," he claimed.

We met one such victim earlier that day on the street. 45-year-old Arsola Assad invited us into her home when she saw our cameras. "This is where it landed", she said pointing to the gaping hole in her bedroom ceiling. "I was in my bed at the time but luckily not hurt." She flipped though photos of the aftermath on her phone. The time stamp showed they were taken earlier in the week.

The government has also recently launched its own attacks according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who reported that children have been among the victims. It's this kind of tit-for-tat that the U.N. worries could spark an all out battle, with the rebels and their civilian captives no match for the Syrian army and their Russian supported airstrikes.

And as government hold the front line, President Assad faces another battle: rebuilding. 

Palmyra is perhaps best known for its Roman ruins and the antiquities ISIS pillaged and sold on the black market to help fund its once growing caliphate. The UNESCO World Heritage site was also where the terror group filmed mass executions which they uploaded to YouTube as propaganda. But just a short walk from the old city is the new one where 80,000 people lived, and American tourists visited, before the war began. It's been two years since the government and its allies liberated Palymra and so far only 35 families have returned, including Feda Mahmoud and her son. "I've been living here since 30 years, so I don't want to leave," she told me as she grilled chicken on the street in front of her small café. Feda's customers mainly include the Syrian-allied Russian and Iranian forces still stationed here, and on this day, me.

As I walked through the city that afternoon, I looked through the blown out doors and shattered windows of businesses and homes that I imagined used to looked like New York City's Lower East Side, where I once lived.  

In Apocalyptic movies, cities ravaged by disaster still retained a sense of identity. Supermarkets had empty shelves and broken cash registers. Travel agencies had dusty posters of paradise hanging from a single tack. But no such still life existed in Palmyra. War erased this city down to its cinder block frames whose exteriors, most still standing but textured with thousands of bullet holes, looked like an abandoned coral reef. An entire community vanished without a trace and without a reliable water or electric supply, it would take a special breed of pioneer to rebuild.

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"Occasionally I feel lonely. I hope that everyone one day will come back because there's something we say, 'even in heaven, if there's no people, you can't sleep,'" said Feda.

As we traveled to Aleppo, the pouring rain and fogging car windows made the landscape around us feel aquatic, like a voyage in a submarine. The craters in the road jolted me back to reality. When we arrived at dusk, the destruction came into focus like a sunken ship. But unlike Palmyra, Aleppo's skeletal remains were teeming with life. Children played soccer on the street. A metal welder was at work in his damaged garage.

Aleppo is Syria's largest city known for its once vibrant textile industry. An estimated 33,500  buildings were either damaged or destroyed and the Syrian Observatory says more than 20,000 civilians were killed. Zaher Sabouni lost his soap making factory. Two months ago, three years after Aleppo was liberated, he started making the city's famous green bars using olive oil, some coming from the orchards on Idlib's frontline. "90% of Syrians used our soap which has our name on it. They'll see this soap and know we're back," he said proudly.

In comments to French media that were published by Syrian state news agency Sana, President Assad described the devastation as "painful for us as Syrians to see," and justified his army's bombing of Aleppo. "This is the price sometimes, but at the end, the people are liberated from the terrorists," he said. He added, "every war is bad". The United Nations has also accused the Syrian government of repeatedly violating international law by dropping chlorine bombs on its own people, an accusation the government has denied.

What can't be refuted is the lingering toll of this war. According to the U.N., nearly half of Syria's pre-war population has been displaced and as of 2016, 400,000 people had been killed. The agency has since stopped updating its count because new numbers were difficult to verify. Several survivors I spoke with said they were exhausted from loss and fear.

A Gallup Poll found the average American has nine "close friends". In countries like Syria, where generations of families often live under one roof, that number is likely higher. The loss of just one person impacts many. And I wondered how, without a community, these survivors heal and how the anxieties that helped fuel war, subside?

The World Bank estimates it could take six years of work just to clear the nearly 15 million tons of debris in Aleppo alone, and 250 billion dollars to rebuild the entire nation. Russia and Iran who helped swing the war in President Assad's favor haven't committed meaningful money into rebuilding and the Syrian government says western sanctions are only adding to the country's instability. The U.S. won't do business with Syria as long has Assad is in power. 

Most of Syria may be liberated, but it's still trapped.

"We have four more floors to go," said architect Marwa al-Sabouni as we scaled up a blackened stairwell to the twelfth floor of the burnt out office building where her and her husband used to work. Marwa's husband was drafting at his desk with a clear view of the city of Homs when a bullet pierced through the wall, just missing him. As Marwa tells the story, he continued working for a few more hours unfazed, shut down his computer and left, never to return again until after the war. And what we found when we reach the twelfth floor WAS like a scene out of one of those apocalyptic films. Paper and concrete and tea kettles and books were scattered everywhere just like the floors we left behind. Her husband's desk had been removed by rebels and replaced by green sandbags. We were standing in a sniper's nest. Hundreds of bullet casings were mixed around Marwa's past life. 

I asked if the devastation surprised her. "No, no. I mean you must get used to it after eight years," she said without skipping a beat. "At what point does the cloud of war disappear and you start assigning blame?", I followed-up. "Personally I have taken not to blame anyone because the scale of loss and the scale of atrocity makes it very possible to blame everyone." 

In the last few years Mawra has instead focused on the future. She wrote a book on the role architecture will play in bringing neighbors back together called "The Battle For Home," and she's travelled the world giving lectures, including a popular Ted Talk. She believes the modern buildings constructed in the decades before the war separated people by sects. She wants to tear down those walls with buildings that literally bridge the roadways that divide.

It's a bold plan that she doubts will break ground any time soon, if ever. Any post-war world is corrupt, she said. But as we rifled through the dusty remains of her past life, she told me you can be afraid to get your hands dirty. "I think you can't wait until it's all perfect and shiny. I think every place where people went through destruction, and there are numerous events like this in human history, coming back doesn't wait for a moment."

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