Palmyra (Syria) (AFP) - As pro-government forces entered the famed Syrian city of Palmyra for the first time in nearly a year on Sunday, they feared they would find its treasured sites destroyed forever.
Backed by Russian ground and air forces, the Syrian troops had made their final push into the desert city early on Sunday, expelling Islamic State group jihadists.
The extremist Sunni group had destroyed some of Palmyra's most iconic artefacts, including the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph.
"We were so scared we would enter the ruins and find them completely destroyed," one Syrian soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity on the outskirts of the city.
"We were afraid to look... But when we entered and saw it, we were relieved," he told AFP.
Much of the ancient city of Palmyra, including the Agora and the celebrated Roman theatre, appear to have survived IS's nearly ten-month reign over the city.
Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen, and Russian fighters strolled among the ruins in awe, incredulous they were still intact.
They walked slowly in fear of roadside bombs or hidden mines that IS may have left behind, but their joy and relief were palpable.
Some fighters began casually kicking a football around just under Palmyra's famed citadel, west of the city.
Another soldier began playing an upbeat rhythm on a small traditional drum as his peers sang songs praising President Bashar al-Assad.
But one Syrian fighter stood sobbing loudly in the old ruins.
"I'm sad to see some of the old city destroyed, but I'm also weeping for my brother, who died in the battle here," the soldier said.
"By taking the city, I feel I've avenged his death."
The modern district of Palmyra, where 70,000 people lived before the war, was not as lucky as the old city.
Days of heavy street fighting battered the rows of two- to three-storey apartment buildings, and some completely collapsed into a pile of rubble.
Those neighbourhoods were deserted on Sunday, in eery contrast to the relative serenity of the ancient ruins.
"The battle at Palmyra has dispelled this aura surrounding Daesh fighters. They're just regular fighters, and we can demolish them," one fighter said, using a the Arabic acronym for IS.
Syria's army began a major offensive to retake Palmyra earlier this month, and their victory is a major strategic and symbolic win for the embattled government.
"We've been completely cut off for the past 10 days," one soldier said.
"We're waiting to have proper mobile phone reception again so we can tell our parents that Palmyra is back and that we're okay."