For much of the past four years, taking a bus between the two sides of Syria’s divided second city Aleppo meant an arduous, and sometimes dangerous, 10-hour road trip.
But on Saturday, the trip took just half an hour, as buses travelled directly from the government-held west to recently recaptured neighbourhoods in the east.
At least 10 buses made the trip from west to east, after the army seized 60 percent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.
People packed every seat and all the standing room on each vehicle for a chance to go back.
“I haven’t been to my house for almost six years,” said Hala Hassan Fares, on one bus with her husband and son. “Our house is totally burned, but we’re going to see my father, who is 80 years old,” she told media.
“He stayed behind there, with my sisters and other relatives.”
Many of the buses were adorned with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the flags of Syria and the regime’s staunch ally Russia.
Passengers pressed their faces against the glass to catch glimpses of neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.
At times they spotted homes they recognised, the building of friends or relatives, but in other moments they exclaimed in horror at the magnitude of the destruction.
Once the country’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by the war that has killed more than 300,000 people since it began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
In the year after rebels seized east Aleppo in 2012, residents could travel intermittently through a checkpoint in the central Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, though government buses stopped running.
But by 2014, even that route was closed because of persistent sniper fire, and the only way to go from one side of the city to the other was via a circuitous 10-hour trip on private buses.
That route went through territory held by the government, Islamic State group, and rebels.
On Saturday, the green state bus company buses travelled exclusively through the government-held territory, starting at the Razi bus stop in central Jamiliyeh neighbourhood and arriving 30 minutes later in the newly recaptured Masaken Hanano district in eastern Aleppo.
The route was still precarious, with the road dotted with craters and lined in some areas with overturned, burnt out vehicles.
In Masaken Hanano, explosions could still be heard as the government pushed its offensive to recapture all of Aleppo.
Despite the bumpy journey, Fares was happy to be on one of the first buses going east.
“It’s true that there are lots of potholes in the road and that makes my stomach hurt, but to me it feels like the smoothest journey ever,” she said smiling.
Finding ruined homes
At the wheel of the bus was driver Abdullah al-Ali who did his best to navigate the difficult route with his overstuffed vehicle.
“It should be fine, other buses are ahead of us,” he said, as he drove through a series of six checkpoints along the route.
At the first and last checkpoints, both manned by government soldiers, the bus and its passengers were inspected. “I’m so happy for these people going back to check on their homes,” he told media.
“I felt their happiness… they were so eager to get on the buses whether sitting or standing so that they could go and see their homes.”
The scene at the other end was not an easy one for many families, who arrived to find the massive destruction of the sort that has been wrought throughout east Aleppo during the years since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
Rubble was strewn across streets, the facades of buildings ripped away, windows were gone, and interiors destroyed by flames or weather, or picked through by looters.
Um Yayha, 55, found little left at her home after arriving with her brother and husband. “There were more of us standing than sitting on the bus. We stood the whole way,” she said carrying a large photo.
“This is all we found, this photo of my niece. It is precious to us, and we found a copy of the Koran, so we brought that too.” “There were a few other things in the house, but all of them needed to be thrown away.”