Ali al-Hamad, 42, and his wife Amira prepare their few belongings scattered across their makeshift tent at Ayn Issa camp, 50 km north-west of the city of Raqqa.
The small family of a five finally decided to return to their home in the Mashlab neighborhood after they heard news of civilians being allowed to return after landmines were cleared from the area.
Asharq Al-Awsat accompanied Ali's family on its homecoming trip.
As they hopped into the private car that took them to Raqqa, their hearts raced as the distance shortened. Finally, they were moving on and leaving behind memories of the harsh displacement and the refugee camp, where they had spent nearly six months waiting for this moment.
Mixed feelings filled the air. "A sense of joy mixed with fear-- even though we managed to flee the flames of war, but today I’m afraid that those flames had swept my house into ruin,” said Ali.
En route home, the family hesitantly arrived at the eastern Raqqa gates where they were stopped at a Syrian Democratic Forces checkpoint.
US-backed SDF units checked their identification papers and noted down their names, then welcomed them into the recently liberated Mashlab.
“We heard that residents were allowed to return to each of the Mashlab, Tayyar and Ajazara neighborhoods—but other areas are still off limits because the de-mining teams are not done yet.”
The Raqqa outskirts looked less affected. The four-month battles between June and October this year ripped through the inner city. Mashlab, nestled near the eastern side of Raqqa, was one of the first neighborhoods liberated from the grip of ISIS.
SDF units with air cover by the US-led international coalition liberated the neighborhood, giving Ali and his wife a shimmer of hope and a reason to be optimistic amid disaster.
Arriving to the neighborhood, signs of relief lit their faces after seeing a number of houses and shops that had survived the strikes and were not destroyed. A small number of children were running in the square, walking next to a number of civilians, who were busy inspecting their belongings.
The family then reached their home. Setting key in lock and turning it around, the scene was too good to be true.
Ali’s house was mostly intact and survived the bombardment. The street they lived in was not badly damaged.
“Thank God, the house is the same, the doors and windows were shattered by explosive pressure waves, but other than that the house is safe” said with tears of joy flowing.
“It was a dream to go back to the house, and, God willing, all the people of Raqqa will return safely."
Hundreds of civilians returned to Raqqa neighborhoods after de-mining operations were complete, allowing for the first batch of residents to return safely to the city.
Ali Issa, head of Ayn Issa refugee camp, said that "dozens of displaced people return daily to their homes, especially to Raqqa’s vicinity and neighboring farms."
According to the local civil council, some 4,000 people have so far returned, most of whom had spent months in displacement.