Displaced Syrians fear return, marking a demographic shift
Syria's government says people who fled rebel zones that have since been retaken by the military are now welcome to return. But that's not how it worked out for one refugee family that came to check out the state of their home: They found another family had moved in.
That's just one of many hurdles keeping away those displaced in Syria's war.
Many who fled say they fear arrest if they return to homes now under government control, or that their sons will be conscripted into the same military that once bombarded their towns. In other former opposition strongholds, the state is carrying out redevelopment projects that have razed thousands of homes.
The opposition accuses the government of President Bashar Assad of using under-the-radar methods to discourage populations it sees as disloyal from returning, changing the demographics to help consolidate control over a corridor running from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.
The government says it is doing all it can to bring people back.
"The main goal of the Syrian government is to return all displaced Syrians to their homes," National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told The Associated Press last month.
More than 11 million people, nearly half Syria's population, have been driven from their homes by the war since 2011, including five million who fled abroad as refugees.
The war still rages in many parts of the country, and there is heavy destruction. In those conditions, a mass return is unlikely. So it is difficult to measure how much government measures are keeping opposition-minded Syrians from returning.
WHO CAN COME BACK
But the fall of a number of opposition strongholds in recent months has brought to immediate relevance the issue of who can come back.
For example, a string of rebel, mainly Sunni Muslim suburbs around Damascus have come under military control. They were drained of much of their population as hundreds of thousands fled siege and bombardment in recent years. Now, thousands more are leaving because of government control. It is an open question whether they will ever return.
In Aleppo, Syria's largest city, government forces are besieging the rebel eastern districts, and the estimated 275,000 residents have refused calls to evacuate, in part because many are convinced they'll never be allowed back.